My rating: 3.5/10
Picture yourself on a boat on the ocean, just out of Bombay, heading to England…
Here’s Tiggie, our hero. He’s a wealthy bachelor looking forward to a few months of convalescence from his latest bout of some tropical ailment.
Tiggie can’t keep his eyes off a fellow passenger, the ethereally beautiful and frantically anxious Mrs. Viola Norman, whose husband appears to have missed the sailing. Tiggie steps up to soothe the perpetually shrinking Viola, and discovers that her nervous condition is apparently well justified, for not only is she pretty well stone broke and bereft of her (apparent) spouse, she is also in the family way.
The overwrought Viola attempts to end it all by taking a dive off the ship’s railing, but Tiggie intervenes in a dramatic rescue. As he pulls the frail Mrs Norman to safety, he is suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of feelings for her. Full on, instant infatuation. He’s on fire!
Confined as they are to the first class deck of a ship at sea, Tiggie and Viola can’t avoid each other, and Tiggie focuses his ever-more-fevered gaze on the trembling little grass widow. He is rewarded when Viola reveals herself to be a woman with an unexpectedly passionate inner core, as Tiggie discovers when he manages to corner her one post-rescue night on a secluded corner of the deck. As his lips meet hers, and she yields meltingly to his masterful embrace, fireworks go off, volcanoes erupt, etcetera. (Too bad she’s MARRIED. And PREGNANT.)
Tiggie belatedly gets a grip on himself and does the Correct Gentleman’s Thing. He pulls himself off with an apology, which Viola whisperingly accepts. They mustn’t see each other once they reach England! Viola, having confessed to being abandoned by the father of her coming child, insists that she will be able to find employment and care for herself, and that she will quickly repay the money which Tiggie forces upon her to tide her over. He’ll never see her again; she won’t be beholden to him; their mutual smoldering passion will just have to be firmly quenched. They must forever part!
Need I go on? (I will, of course. The question is purely rhetorical; I could stop right there and let you guess the rest quite successfully yourself.)
For of course their paths reconnect, and through an elaborately coincidence-ridden plot, the two tortured lovers almost immediately reunite. Viola has a rather convenient miscarriage, just to neaten things up on that end. A whole bunch of stuff happens regarding Viola’s shady past as a cabaret dancer, her surprising familiarity with Tiggie’s artist brother-in-law, and the re-surfacing Mr Norman, who turns out to be not so imaginary as once thought.
The key players in the story – Tiggie, Viola, the lost husband, the artist brother-in-law – all find themselves together in a small coastal village, well-furnished with cliffs convenient for adding an element of potentially fatal danger to the ongoing action. No prizes for guessing the sad fate of Viola’s rejected husband.
Yup. He’s doomed.
Now rid of both incipient unwanted baby and pesky previous relationship, Viola is fully Tiggie’s own. The curtain falls on their happy ending.
My word. I can’t quite believe I made it through this thing. I feel like I deserve a prize. It was, increasingly, a slog, though I do have to give Ethel M. Dell credit for writing just well enough to keep me at it. There was certainly a lot of action, which helped.
I do have to say that if I’d been there in any capacity, I would have happily pushed the whole cast of characters off that tall, tall cliff. By the time their romance came right, I warmly hated both Tiggie and Viola, and Harvey-the-eccentric-genius-artist was push-worthy just by association.
The only character I liked by the end was Harvey’s wife – Tiggie’s sister Janet – who avoids being involved with any of this nonsense by staying sensibly home and running her chicken farm while her male connections are off making idiots of themselves. (Ha! Didn’t expect that little detail, did you? I immediately gave Dell an extra point for the hens. It was so darned unexpected, and really kind of sweet.)
So there you have it. Me and Ethel M. Dell. Oh boy.
A bit of background stuff.
Ethel M. Dell was a highly successful romance novelist of her time – thirty novels from 1911 to 1938 – and her target markets were under-employed spinsters whiling away their long afternoons, and working class women looking for a titillating read for their infrequent leisure hours.
Dell specialized in semi-exotic locations, masterful men, trembling women, and sex-soaked situations. She stopped just short of explicit in her descriptions of romantic encounters, but the veil she left drawn was rather on the thin side.
Those of us who read any amount of early and mid 20th Century middlebrow fiction are very familiar with Dell’s name, and by extension her genre, even if we’ve never cracked the covers of one of her passion-filled productions. Other writers of the time loved to scorn her; occasionally there is the tangy whiff of sour grapes, for Dell did financially very well with her particular line, one suspects much more so than many of the “serious” writers of her day.
Contemporary fellow writer (and professional literary critic) Rebecca West famously condemned Ethel M. Dell’s work as decidedly “tosh”. (The exact quote, in reference to another of Dell’s torrid romances, 1922’s Charles Rex, was this: “(I)n every line that is written about him one hears the thudding, thundering hooves of a certain steed at full gallop; of the true Tosh-horse”.)
On the abundant evidence of this particular novel, I must agree.
Storm Drift was my first and possibly last Dell, though I may succumb to curiosity and explore this writer some more, just to fill in the details in some of those references. I have a few more specimens of Dell’s work on hand, and, much as I hate to say it, I’ve read worse. Not much worse, but occasionally one is desperate for something – anything! – to read…