Since most of you know that this blog hails from beautiful foggy San Francisco, I thought I'd add a note that, although Andy and I were indeed awakened by our special Bay Area alarm clock (i.e. an earthquake) at 3:20 AM this morning, and although it was the largest one I've been in so far (a 6.0), all is well with us and as far as we can tell nothing so much as stirred on our shelves. Sadly, as the epicenter was in the Napa area, there was significant damage there and also several very serious injuries. My thoughts and best wishes go to the folks recovering and cleaning up there. Now, back to our previously scheduled programming...
I had a wave of good luck a while back finding Greyladies titles at reasonable prices, including several sadly now out-of-print titles. One of those was this gem of a cozy novel from Lorna Hill, better known for her children’s books, including the “Sadlers Wells” ballet school series and the “Vicarage Family” series. Late in life, Hill also produced two novels for adults, both published in 1978.
Yes, I know that 1978 is well after my time period on this blog, but this novel feels like it fits right in nevertheless. It’s set in the 1950s and seems very much of the mindset and culture of that period. Hill would have been in her mid-seventies when she wrote it, and so perhaps she was recalling the days when she herself would have been about the titular Miss Perkin’s age. At any rate, the old-fashioned style and feel of the novel was enough of a selling point for me.
The Other Miss Perkin is an absolutely charming Cinderella story that could sit with head held high (if books had heads that they could hold high, that is) next to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day on any reader’s bookcase. The main character is a 40-something orphan who has worked for the eight years since her father's death as an underpaid housekeeper for Linda Anderson, an old school "friend," and her family—husband Harold, daughter Dilys, and son Richard. We learn right off the bat that she was born to serve:
Miss Perkin was the daughter of a country vicar, the youngest of three children. When her father had first beheld his infant daughter's ugly red face looking up at him from the old wooden cradle, he had exclaimed: "Why, bless my soul! A proper little Martha, if ever there was one!" So Martha she had been christened, and it must be admitted that the name suited her splendidly.
For the most part, she good-naturedly allows the Armstrong family to exploit her because they provide her with the family feeling she lacks elsewhere. She makes their problems her own, and feels genuine affection for them—particularly Richard, the only one who doesn’t take her utterly for granted.
But—happily for the reader—there is also the “other” Miss Perkin of the novel’s title—the one with a backbone and a strong sense of her own dignity and equality, which is what gives this novel a bit of an edge on some Cinderella tales. Mind you, it’s about as fluffy and cheerful as a novel can be, and yet Miss Perkin’s sense of her own identity and her strength take it to a higher level and lend it a touch (if perhaps only a touch) of realism.
Hill doesn’t waste much time setting her scene. Only a few pages into the novel, Miss Perkin receives a shocking phone call informing her she has won first prize in a magazine contest, which she has nearly forgotten entering. Rather poignantly for a woman who spends all her time in the kitchen or in her tiny bedroom, it’s a home decorating contest, for which Miss Perkin has painstakingly chosen from the pictured decorations to furnish the rooms of a home such as she herself will never (she assumes) possess. Our heroine is clearly a homemaker-in-waiting!
The contest’s first prize is a trip to New York on a first-class airliner, plus one hundred pounds in spending money. At first, the beaten-down Martha tells her caller that such a trip would be out of the question for her. But then, as Linda and Dilys react in their usual self-absorbed ways, that “other” Miss Perkin seems to awaken:
"You don't mean—you can't possibly mean you're thinking of accepting it?" said Mrs. Armstrong, aghast … She certainly didn't relish the thought of her home-help traipsing off to America or somewhere. Whatever would she do without Martha Perkin? Whatever would they all do? Weeks she'd be away no doubt, and Dilys on the brink of an engagement. There'd have to be an engagement-party, she supposed, and no one to clear up the mess afterwards. It was enough to make one's head reel even to think of it. "You can't go, anyway," she added triumphantly. "What would you live on over in America—if that's where you're thinking of going. It costs money, and plenty of it, I've been told, to live over there."
"Yes, it is America," confessed Miss Perkin. "But the money side has all been taken care of. I'm to have one hundred quid—I should say pounds—for expenses. The reporter explained all that to me."
For once in her life, Linda Armstrong was struck dumb with shock.
And suddenly, despite Linda’s warning that perhaps her job would not be waiting for her when she returned, Miss Perkin finds herself rather determined to go, and soon she is on her way, experiencing for the first time the luxury of a first-class train trip to London and then her first-class flight to the U.S. Along the way, she rather hilariously discovers the pleasures of champagne:
''I'll have another of those, waiter," she said, as the man passed down the gangway with his tray. "They're extra—emely good." Funny, she had meant to say "extraordinarily good" but the other had popped out. The two words were extraordinarily alike. Didn't the waiter think so? Extraordinary, wasn't it? "Couldn't you put it in a tumbler?" she asked him. "It would save a lot of pouring out. Besides, the bubbles tickle my nose. Such a silly little glass!"
And when she determines to use her spending money to travel across the U.S. by train to see the Grand Canyon, and along the way meets widowed, wealthy Mr. Harman, who is tired of the grasping women he meets and charmed by Miss Perkin’s grateful acceptance of his kindness—well, the writing is on the wall, in bold font and perhaps in fluorescent orange. But the inevitability of the outcome doesn’t detract from its charm, and there are a few unexpected twists. The necessary complication comes from Mr. Harman’s misunderstanding of her relationship to the Armstrongs—a misunderstanding, that is, of the exact logistics, but a humorously accurate assessment of the family members’ personalities:
Most of the time he was thinking more about Martha Perkin's history than the Grand Canyon's. Her family, for instance. She hadn't told him much about them, but he had put two and two together, and as is so often the case, had added them up wrongly. Harold (her husband) was something in an industrial firm in Whitehaven, which, he gathered, was a small town on the north-west coast of Cumberland, England. She had three children—Dilys, who was learning shorthand and typewriting; Richard, whom she obviously adored, and who was in the car business. Then there was Linda, the eldest. Linda was a bit of a mystery. She clearly didn't have a job. Maybe she was delicate. Between you and me, Mr. Harman didn't think much of Linda—somehow he got the impression that she was a drone, sitting back and manicuring her nails, and letting her mother do all the work. She was beautiful, oh yes. Martha had told Mr. Harman many times how good-looking Linda was, but "handsome is as handsome does," thought he, and he'd like to bet she couldn't hold a candle to her mother—in character, anyway. And as for Harold—his blood boiled at the mere thought of that gentleman.
Re-reading these quotations now makes me rather want to pick up the novel and start it all over again…
There is one small caveat I think I should mention. Miss Perkin's encounters with African-Americans and American Indians are, for better or worse, predictable enough, with Mr. Harman matter-of-factly dismissing the entire Indian race as lazy and the African-American train waiter speaking in utterly stereotypical Hollywood dialect. I should add as well, though, that Miss Perkin's own attitude toward these characters—as apparently toward everyone she meets—is one of curiosity and interest rather than hostility or bigotry. Here is her reaction to the waiter:
“Yo take ma advice, marm. Don' yo go settin' here all de time. Yo go stretch yor legs! There's a wista-dome on dis train, where yo can see most everyt'ing. Yes, marm. Glass all de way round, and dat include de roof. Jest two coaches down de train, marm."
"'All God's children got shoes'," murmured Miss Perkin, feeling she was speaking to Paul Robeson.
"What's dot yo say, marm?"
"Oh, nothing," said Miss Perkin hastily.
Of course, these scenes are not particularly surprising for the time period portrayed, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any mean-spirited intent, but I do confess that a little of them went a long way with me, and it was fortunate that there is only a very little of them in the novel.
That said, however, The Other Miss Perkin was so much fun overall that I just had to look a bit more closely at Lorna Hill’s other work. I have to admit that, from what I've read, the Vicarage Children stories are tempting me quite a lot, but I also checked into Hill's other novel for adults, The Scent of Rosemary, published the same year as Miss Perkin. Greyladies describes it in their author bio by saying it “draws upon her experiences in hospital.” I'm not sure whether that's an encouraging description or not, but happily I will soon be able to elaborate on it, as I’ve already snagged a copy of the book, a 1980 paperback reprint in the “Aston Hall Romance” series.
Yes indeed, here I am reading "romance" again...