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...
This is really interesting, thanks. I know LH as the author of the Sadlers' Wells series, but didn't know of her other books (and Vicarage Family made me think of the rather dark Noel Streatfeild series).ReplyDelete
I haven't read the Streatfeild books, but from what I can tell Hill's vicarage books aren't dark at all, though they do sound charmingly realistic about the conditions of life in an old vicarage. Who knows, I may get around to the Sadlers' Wells books eventually too!Delete
Oh what a charming sounding book. I have been aware of Greyladies books but had so far resisted.ReplyDelete
Greyladies books are a dangerous addiction to begin, Ali, so watch out! But I have enjoyed many of their books enormously. I think I've reviewed at least three or four others as well and am always on the lookout for more!Delete
I have this one on the tbr shelves so I'll definitely get to it one of these days! I enjoyed Summer's Day very much, my post on it will be up this week. Thanks for recommending it.ReplyDelete
Hill's book is a perfect rainy day read, Lyn--I think you'll enjoy it. And I'm so glad you liked Summer's Day. I had a feeling you would. Can't wait to read your thoughts about it!Delete
I've read this one which I bought from Greyladies and really enjoyed it. I hope more people will read it because of your blog!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Kristi. We often seem to be in sync in our reading choices!Delete
OK, you sold me - now if I track it down, I'll even BUY it! Glad you guys are OK!ReplyDelete
Sadly, Tom, you might have some difficulty tracking it down. I wish someone would reprint it again.Delete
Sigh. Of course, Paul Robeson spoke perfectly good English.ReplyDelete
Still, I might be tempted to track it down.
And I'm glad to hear you and Andy came through the earthquake only slightly stirred and shaken.
Yes, I assume she was thinking of the spirituals that Robeson often sang, but he does still seem an odd choice.Delete
It had been so long since our last quake that by the time I figured out what was happening it was over. Just as well, since we live on the 9th floor--doesn't pay to think TOO much about how much bigger a quake will get before it stops!
Oh fiddlesticks, just been to my Greyladies bookshelf in the Czech Republic to get Miss Perkin and I realise she is my latest acquisition and is sitting waiting for me in England, bah! I shan't get to read her till late October.....ReplyDelete
I lost track of these comments somehow, so sorry for the delay. I think that the anticipation of knowing Miss Perkin will be waiting patiently to welcome you back to England will just make the reading that much sweeter!Delete
I'm another fan of Greyladies and have particularly enjoyed the Susan Scarlett ones - the name used by Noel Streatfeild for these lighter novels that she presumably thought too frivolous to appear under her own name. I can recommend Lorna Hill's Vicarage Children ones too.ReplyDelete
I think I'll have to go to the Vicarage Children books, Ann. Hill is a really lovely storyteller. I do like the Susan Scarlett novels as well. I've only written about one here, I think, but have read a couple of others.Delete
OK, I got my copy this morning - tough to track it down, but I used Anglophile Books, and Laura had ONE copy. So - Scott, on your recommendation - here goes! TomReplyDelete