My rating: 9/10
Yesterday’s post was all supercilious and disapproving of D.E. Stevenson’s 1969 novel Gerald and Elizabeth, but happily I am able to balance that with a much more enthusiastic opinion of this also far-fetched but charmingly engaging 1963 effort.
There are several parallels between the two stories, which makes their comparison and my views of one as “good” (The Blue Sapphire) and the other as “not-very-good” (Gerald and Elizabeth) an interesting micro-study in perception and the ambiguities of personal taste. I won’t delve any more deeply into this aspect of these two books, but will zip right into a brief discussion of the book itself.
Dust jacket blurb:
The blue sapphire is a gem which the Ancients called the hyacinthus and which Solinus described as ‘a gem which feels the influence of the air and sympathises with the heavens and does not shine equally if the sky is cloudy or bright’.
On a beautiful spring day, Julia Harburn sat on a seat in Kensington Gardens enjoying the sunshine. She was wearing a white frock and a large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon which exactly matched her eyes – a strange coincidence, as it turned out, for the blue sapphire was to have a far-reaching influence upon her life. So far, her life had been somewhat dull and circumscribed; but quite suddenly her horizons were enlarged. She began to make new friends – and enemies – and she began to discover new strength and purpose in her own nature. This development of her character led her into strange adventures, some amusing, others full of sorrow and distress. The story is itself a blue sapphire story, of clouds and sunshine.
As pretty Julia sits on her park bench waiting for her tardy fiancé Morland to appear for their teatime rendezvous, she is increasingly worried that she will be “annoyed” by the numerous questionable masculine types who have started closing in on her, like hopeful jackals surrounding a tender little gazelle. Luckily a rescuer appears in the person of tall, handsome and very forthcoming Stephen Brett, newly arrived in London after some years away in South Africa overseeing a gemstone mining operation. At first Julia snubs the friendly Stephen, but she soon warms to his innocent cheerfulness, and the two part on mutually appreciative terms just as Morland grumpily hoves into view.
Julia is waiting to break some rather big news to Morland. She has decided to move out of her father’s house and find a job and take a room in a boarding house. Some years ago Julia’s mother had died, and her new stepmother, while not at all cruel, is making it increasingly obvious that she would be happier if she were the only woman in the household.
Morland loftily dismisses Julia’s intentions of independence, but she holds firm, eventually ending up in an attic room in the fabulously Victorian-styled boarding house of the inestimable Miss Martineau, ex-actress and current patroness to “resting” theatrical folk. Miss Martineau takes a shine to Julia, and sets her up in a job at a posh hat shop, where Julia proceeds to thrive, becoming a very special chum to her new boss, the ex-Parisian Madame Claire, to the deep resentment of Julia’s several jealous co-workers.
Meanwhile Stephen Brett pops in and out of Julia’s life, adding some much-needed good humour and friendliness as Julia finds her way as a working girl and tries to cope with Morland’s moodiness and reluctance to set a date for their marriage. Stephen is embroiled in a complicated situation involving a potential sapphire mine back in South Africa; he finds relief from his worries in his growing friendship with Julia.
A turning point in the plot occurs as Julia receives a letter from her father’s estranged brother in Scotland, begging Julia to come and see him before he dies. Off she goes, against Morland’s advice, to find in her Uncle Randal the loving relationship she has never been able to attain with her own father. But Uncle Randal is declining rapidly, and it seems as though Julia will tragically lose him just when she has found him…
Stopping right here, because this is a sweet story which you will want to finish up for yourself. D.E. Stevenson is in her usual form, mixing unlikely scenarios with sunny-natured heroines, grumpy-but-ultimately-innocuous villains, salt-of-the-earth old family retainers, and a knight-in-shining-armour (or two) who appear(s) at just the right time.
The mixture-as-usual, but just what is needed in a book of this gentle genre. Highly recommended to those of you who like this sort of thing; everyone else, tactfully glance away!
Another Look Book liked it, too. As did Claire and Susan, who recommended it to me in the comments to my last year’s post about this other DES, also featuring the incorrigibly snoopy but divinely maternal Miss Martineau, 1966’s The House on the Cliff.