Tuesday, July 18, 2017

HILDA HEWETT, A Week at the Seaside (1955)




Mrs. Grose stood there, savouring to the full the exciting situation and her own part in it as purveyor of the news.

My, here was something to liven-up Seaview Terrace. Not five minutes' walk away, neither. Be able to stand at yer own front gate and watch 'em going to the show. See who went, and who didn't, and who went along with who! Almost as good as being on the route of the Carnival procession, she shouldn't wonder. A free show, almost. And talking of free shows, be able to sit in yer winder and hear the music.

The arrival of "The Seaside Frolics" for a week of performances at the run-down, largely abandoned pavilion is big news for Southsands, and will provide several local residents with more than mere entertainment…

I recently wrote about how I came to start reading Hilda Hewett, and reviewed her wonderful eighth novel, So Early One Morning. (I was so excited, too, to get to be a part of the new issue of The Scribbler on the very topic of Hilda Hewett!) After that positive experience, I immediately requested two of her earlier novels via interlibrary loan, and I snagged an affordable copy of this, her thirteenth, from Abe Books, rather bedraggled in itself but bearing an intact and very seductive dustjacket. (And no wonder the book itself is a bit bedraggled, as it bears a label from a W. H. Smith lending library—see pic below.)



If I can't rave quite as much about A Week at the Seaside as about the earlier novel, I can nevertheless report that it was very entertaining—a nice bit of light, effortless holiday-oriented reading, a little reminiscent, both in its show business themes and in tone, of Noel Streatfeild in her Susan Scarlett mode.

Most of the cast members of the Frolics find drama of one sort or another in Southsands, and each of the novel's plot strands involves at least one of them. At center stage, though only minor characters themselves, are the Frost sisters, Milly, Nelly, and Molly, who run the Collegiate School for girls, a rather deteriorating concern. Much is made of their flair in pronouncing "y" endings—happay, Mollay, busay, rainay, and so forth—which is frequently amusing but perhaps just a bit overdone. Their nephew is Hugh, a married man who's stepping out with Wendy, the Frolics' gold-digging soprano. This week, his estranged wife Helen has dropped their daughter Becky off with the Frost sisters at Hugh's request, to spend some time with her father. It's only later that she (and Becky) realizes that he's really in Southsands only because Wendy is there. The expected drama and discord follows.


Then there are various neighbors—gossipy Mrs Grose, officious Mrs Cole and her harrassed husband and son Robert, the latter of whom falls hard for Paddy, the Frolics' "soubrette" (or light flirty vocalist, as I discovered from Googling the term), the widowed Mr Belling, proprietor of the local hotel, who is ruthless in exploiting the labor of his daughter Pam, and the demanding Miss Coombs and her rather beleagured companion Miss Croucher, who develops her own crush on Cecil, the Frolics' manager and operatic singer, perhaps as an escape from her sometimes stifling home life:

It was characteristic of the regime at Sea Breeze that Miss Croucher's really prostrating headaches were dismissed scornfully as "her silly heads," whilst Miss Coombs's billious-attacks, brought on by over eating, were alluded to reverently as "her bad turns."

But it's really Becky who shines here, and I'm getting a clear feeling that Hewett's best strength is in portraying young girls. Becky has—as is usually the case—figured out far more of her parents' situation than they imagine she has, and is miserable at the thought that they might divorce. She is broody, and feels (understandably) betrayed by her parents, a feeling that's heightened when she's unfairly accused of losing the new trinket given to her by Hugh, when it was in fact stolen by another child with whom she spends an enforced and unpleasant visit. In her loneliness, she finds comfort in a friendship with Gerald, one of the Frolics' comedians, whose mother was a friend of the Frosts. He gives her a bit of her dignity and self-respect again by treating her as an equal, not condescending to her or scolding her, and he is himself an intriguing character because Hewett makes matter-of-factly clear that he's a gay man:

Gerald began to talk. He was not of the school of thought which thinks that conversation with a child must be initiated by a species of catechism. He did not ask her how old she was, whether she liked school, or the name of her favourite subject. He simply talked; and before they had walked very far Becky had acquired quite a lot of information about his flat in Dean Street, his friend Rupert, who lived with him, and his Siamese cat, Prudence.

If all the characters sound a bit dizzying presented in a couple of paragraphs, they're far more smoothly presented by Hewett (though there's a handy cast of characters at the front of the book if you do get confused). Wendy's charms start to wear thin with Hugh when he sees how self-absorbed she is, Robert and Paddy suffer the turmoils of young love, and Pam finds a shot at freedom from her father's tyranny after kindly offering to sew up a costume for the Frolics. Then there's a major London impresario whose car breaks down and decides to attend the show, a huge break for the performers that's threatened when Dorothy, the pianist, is struck by a car.

It's all quite entertaining, and for the most part everything works itself out just as you would expect it to. It's in no way as subtle or profound as So Early One Morning, but I didn't mind that very much. By this time in her career, Hewett was publishing with Robert Hale, a publisher that seems to have specialized heavily in romance and melodrama, and I couldn't help but wonder if she may have been pressured to tone down her best literary qualities and go for something with more immediate lending library appeal. Even so, however, her insight into young girls and how they think and behave come through here and there. One of my favorite examples is this passage featuring Becky and the terrible daughter of one of her mother's best friends (a different terrible girl from the one who steals her trinket—she apparently has bad luck with girls her own age):

Poppet was what she called Babette, though Becky thought Babette was a silly enough name, without inventing anything else. Having to be on show in the drawing-room, with Auntie Rosemary watching everything she did, and making remarks to Mummy in French was awful. She and Babette were allowed to take it in turns to choose what they wanted to do. Babette never chose something sensible, like Happy Families or Snap. She always wanted to listen to some music on the gramophone, something called " Swan Lake," and another thing with a funny name that was French. There she would sit, listening with her head on her hand, and her blue eyes very wide open. Auntie Rosemary would nod towards her, and whisper to Mummy:

"Miles away, isn't she?"

Becky, who had seen her rehearsing that particular expression in the bathroom looking-glass, along with a number of others to be assumed at suitable times, wondered how grownups could be so silly.

They certainly can be silly. Just look at our president…

Overall, the book is a light bit of "frolic", but one with some definite high points.
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