"Do you believe in anything, Susan?"
"No. Nothing. Except a sense of humour."
This book rather inconsiderately jumped the queue in my TBR, ahead of a few hundred other titles that have been waiting in line for years. But I only just came across this author in my research a few weeks ago, and although the only thing I knew about this novel (the first of only two by Bird, whose real name was Dame (!) Dorothea Croft, née Mavor) was a rather short and uninformative blurb from the Observer (see below), some instinct kicked in and I not only ordered the one affordable copy but also plunged right into it as soon as it arrived.
The blurb mentions both comedy and tragedy, but for the first 100 pages of By Accident, I felt happily confident that it was merely a light-hearted frolic of a novel—a village romance along classic lines, a bit silly, without much substance, and including such instantly recognizable characters as Mr. and Mrs. Barton, the ghastly, sanctimonious busybodies who should be smothered with pillows, their spoiled, neurotic, drunken son Nigel, the astonishingly absent-minded but perfectly lovable Vicar, his erratic servant Emma who occasionally goes on a bender in mourning for one or another of her lost husbands, not one but two mysterious new arrivals to the village, and Susan, a perky, no-nonsense heroine who is often, however reluctantly, at the center of village affairs.
100 pages in, however, the tragedy began to make itself felt alongside the development of two separate romances, and it became a bit more melancholy and meaningful. I was worried at first that the difficulties—involving particularly the health problems of both of the village's new mystery residents, a fragile dress shop owner and a smashed-up former flying ace—would sink into melodrama. Both are soon enmeshed in romances with villagers; one will face a tragic end, while the other's future happiness is to be hoped for but not necessarily assumed. But in fact the author is able to keep things nicely in balance, with (just as the blurb stated) the tragic elements occurring alongside the comic, just as in real life.
The author would have been 38 when this novel appeared, with a husband and two young sons (she appears on the 1939 England & Wales Register perhaps evacuated from Hampstead, where she seems to have lived much of her life, to Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, with the boys and their nurse–of course giving her profession as "unpaid domestic duties" rather than mentioning the two novels published in recent years). No obvious evidence of trauma in her own life, then (her husband outlived her), though of course who can know what else she'd been through? But she seems to have had some very practical, stoic wisdom about the ups and downs of life, as shown in the quote opening this review (a philosophy to which I staunchly hold) and in this rather acerbic exchange between Susan and her young friend (and former beau) Robin toward the end of the novel:
"You have to pay for everything."
"I should say so. And not only that. It's spot cash, and no credit. And when you've paid in full, you can't keep what you've paid for, and anyway it doesn't last, even if you could keep it. If that isn't a ghoulish way of doing business! I ask you!"
But this is a rare cynical moment in characters who, for the most part, make the best of things, and therefore the novel never became depressing even in its sad moments. It's not a perfect novel (Bird seems to have been more amused by the Bartons' sanctimonious ravings than I was, and lets them go on too long, on too many occasions, though they bring about their own punishments in the end), but it was surprisingly satisfying over all, and has a tone all its own, far more memorable than I expected. I would love to proceed to the author's only other novel, Both Hands (1936), but alas it's nonexistent in libraries and the only copy on Abe Books at the moment is $200+ and I don't yearn for it quite that much… Alas, another woman whose very significant potential as a writer seems to have petered out, perhaps due to lack of encouragement or simply lack of time.
But lest I leave you thinking the novel isn't primarily cheerful, a couple of glimpses of its humor. First, a passage from very early on, channelling some distinct Barbara Pym energy:
It was nine o'clock in the evening, and the church clock had just struck sixteen. Susan was coming back from the village hall, where a show of vegetables was being arranged together with a display of jealousy and malice.
And then, poor Emma, refusing to accept, in a drunken stupor, that she had stumbled into the wrong house (let's overlook for now the fact that, were she a real person, Emma would certainly belong in rehab—as well as the distinct possibility that the delightful old Vicar might be suffering dementia…):
Mr. Binks silently appeared through a baize door. He regarded the figure of Emma, making a hazardous ascent of the staircase, with mild surprise. He looked a question at Susan, with an expressive glance.
"She blew in as I was going out," Susan explained. "She's mistaken the house."
"No I haven't," snapped Emma. "You have."
Mr. Binks proved quite equal to the situation. He went up the few stairs which Emma had so far managed, and steered her firmly down again. She had started to giggle, which added to her uncertainty of direction.
"I'll have to see her home," said Mr. Binks, "or she'll never arrive."
"What impertinence!" Emma laughed. "I can't go home alone with you. It was a fog that led to my first marriage."
"You need not worry this time," replied Mr. Binks stiffly.