Friday, May 21, 2021

Not as easy as you think: D. E. STEVENSON, The Blue Sapphire (1963)


'Surely you can sit on a seat for a few minutes without getting into conversation with a perfectly strange young man!'
Julia smiled. 'It isn't as easy as you seem to think.'

Continuing my recent reading of some lesser-known D. E. Stevenson novels, I turned to this gem (get it?).

Julia Harburn is a somewhat sheltered young woman at a loose end following the remarriage of her chilly, distant father and her own redundancy in the couple's home. She has never been close to her father, who desperately wanted her to be a boy and whose somber reserve she thinks of as his "big brown blanket": "He was wrapped up so tightly in his big brown blanket that the real man was invisible; he seldom spoke, quite often he did not hear what was said to him." She has therefore resolved to rent a room and find a job, though the details of the latter remain vague in her mind.

As the novel opens, Julia is heading to Kensington Gardens to meet her fiancé Morland Beverley, whose stuffiness and bossiness perfectly fit his name. Morland is also a chilly man, very much her father's type, and their chilly engagement has dragged on as they wait—very practically if not very romantically—for him to make partner in his law firm. While waiting for him on a park bench, Julia encounters Stephen Brett, a young man who works as a mining engineer in Africa, who is in London on some exciting business involving an abandoned mine and the perfect blue sapphire of the novel's title.


Julia finds her room, in a boarding house "quite near Kensington High Street" belonging to the theatrical Miss May Martineau (real name Eliza Potts), a classic DES woman-of-a-certain-age-with-a-heart-of-gold. And May in turn finds her a job in a hat shop with her friend Madame Claire, and memorably demonstrates to Julia the art of selling hats:

with that she leapt from her chair, seized an antimacassar, twisted it into a sort of turban and crossing the room to a gilt-framed mirror arranged it carefully upon her head. Then she turned, and suddenly she was a different person, languid and affected.

'The very latest from Paris,' she drawled, bending her head from one side to the other and patting her curls with the tips of her fingers. 'So chic, so becoming ... the line so original, so intriguing! Let us see if it becomes Madame,' she added, removing it from her own head and settling it carefully upon Julia's. 'Beautiful!' she cried in sudden ecstasy. 'What could be better? It is Madame's colour; it enhances the loveliness of Madame's eyes ; it shows off her delicious complexion! Let me pull it this way a trifle—no, that way! Exquisite!' cried Miss Martineau, clasping her hands and rolling her eyes.

But just as Julia is settling happily into her new life, she receives an unexpected letter from Randal Harburn, a hitherto unknown uncle in Scotland, who writes out of the blue asking her to visit as his health is failing and he hopes to heal the rift between himself and Julia's father. Her father is traveling in Europe with his new wife, and she knows he would dislike such a trip—as does Morland, of course—but she cannot refuse an ill man's request. Her decision, naturally, reaps all sorts of complications


As in so many D. E. Stevenson novels, a journey to Scotland transforms our heroine's life (though she has already begun the transformation process in London under her own steam), and in many ways Julia herself is transformed, as well as released her from her melancholy past. It's a story DES has told before, but she tells it so well that readers are unlikely to care if it feels familiar. And Julia's development is so convincingly detailed, and she so likeable and spirited and sincere, that it would be curmudgeonly to make too much of the fact that I wanted much more of the delightful Miss Martineau, who surely deserved a novel all her own.

One thing that struck me looking back at the opening scene in Kensington Gardens was how unexpectedly relevant it is to conversations happening today. Although it's largely played for laughs, as in the quote I used to open this post, there is something eerily familiar and disturbing about Julia's experience while waiting for the unpunctual Morland:

Julia herself was greeting the sunshine in a simple white frock and large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon round the crown (it so happened that the ribbon matched her eyes; perhaps she was aware of this fortunate circumstance). She had dressed to please Morland, of course, but soon she became aware that quite a number of people were taking pleasure in her appearance. In fact it began to be rather uncomfortable sitting here all by herself . . . she wished Morland would come.

An old gentleman stopped and stared at her …. He stopped and stared and made a movement as if he intended to sit down beside Julia on the seat; but she returned his stare in such a forbidding manner that he changed his mind and walked on.

Three youths who were strolling along arm-in-arm looked at her hopefully, but Julia took no notice so they nudged each other and giggled and left her in peace.

It's a striking thing for an author like D. E. Stevenson to have delineated so clearly—the fact that a young woman alone in public must always be on the defensive, must be prepared to stare in a forbidding manner to avoid harassment, and must always be alert to what's happening around her in case it leads to danger.

Who says middlebrow fiction isn't political and doesn't speak to relevant issues?

22 comments:

  1. Stevenson's The House on the Cliff has Miss Martineau's boarding home in the second chapter.
    Marian Librarian

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh thank you! Great to know that, as I have that book on my TBR shelves.

      Delete
    2. Yes, I was going to mention that, too. I love her character and wish she had been in more of the books.

      Delete
  2. I just reread House on the Cliff (so delightful) and noticed the same. Stevenson loves doing this, like _Gerald and Elizabeth_ where the vicar Heath is seen at the end, the same one of _Katherine Wentworth_ and _Katherine's Marriage _ Stevenson loves doing this, same with places like Wandlebury and the tea (pub) shop. The Blue Sapphire does show her awareness of the difficulties for women esp in regards to money but also a sense of continuation of tradition with and juxtaposed to social changes that were happening. She's delightful, astute and wise. Not to mention incredibly versatile in her creation of place/s and characterization. Intresting with her story lines that can repeat but never with the same persons. She has a genius this way. Of course perhaps the genius she writes of novelists like Miss Buncle is hers also: a general or universal appeal aa her second Buncle books mentions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Another example is that in Anna and her Daughters, Anna says that she knew someone who wrote a book about her neighbours and got into terrible trouble over it. Obviously Miss Buncle.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, I'll be on the lookout for these!

      Delete
  3. Oh this sounds absolutely delightful and I would read it like a shot!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I hope this doesn't show up as a repeat, I tried to comment before and think I lost it.

    Many thanks to Scott for this enjoyable and insightful review of a book that I love. The theme of young woman getting engaged to a young man who isn't right for her in part because it is "suitable" to the family, changing her mind and finding a new meaning in life on a trip to Scotland is one DES used at least one other time, in The Tall Stranger. But the characters/personalities of the people involved and the details of the situation make each book a fresh experience.

    Jerri

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is one of my favorites! Glad someone mentioned Miss Martineau appears in another book because I was pretty sure but could not recall which one.

    ReplyDelete
  6. OH WOW! One I have actually read, more than once, discussed with the DES group, and so can appreciate your column. This was a lovely book - Juliia is one of my favorite DES heroines. AND I love Miss May Martineaum and her "Dullings," Thanks, Scott!
    Tom

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Tom. I have to write about a familiar book once in a while!

      Delete
  7. Hi Scott - isn't life strange? Still in semi-Covid restricted Scotland I was pondering the other day how I was going to pass the summer months. My friend the Angel of Bibliography had my back however because at 3am.I thought "Why don't you plan one of your "Reading Projects"? what about having a look at some of what you call "Barbara Pymish" books say "women writers of the first half of the 20th century (I'm really more of a Regency/ Victorian novel type)so I drew up a list and the first novel I decided on is "The Blue Sapphire" Naturally I thought this was a pretty unique idea (idiot that I am!)Then ,curiouser and curiouser ,I discovered your blog and found that - my list includes a good number of your suggestions.Suddenly the summer of '21 looks a lot more inviting! Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  8. Things just keep getting better! Having discovered the blog ysterday - I've now met the book editions and feel as if I'd rubbed a magic lamp! The only trouble is that I don't know if I'll actually get into the contents because I'm so taken with the artwork on the covers! Once again thanks Jan T.

    ReplyDelete
  9. The Blue Sapphire is one of my top favourite of all DES books. So many delightful characters, including Julia, Stephen, May Martineau, Uncle Randall and Neil Logan. Oh,and Maggie Walker, too. And Mrs. Brett. And even the Rajah, Morland Beverly, because he really really gets his come-uppance.

    If only we knew someone who could republish it....

    ReplyDelete
  10. My copy is a free download from Kindle Unlimited!

    ReplyDelete

NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at furrowed.middlebrow@gmail.com. I do want to hear from you!