Sunday, November 29, 2015

CATHERINE GAYTON, Those Sinning Girls (1940)

My well-worn copy from the Boston Athenaeum

I was intrigued by Catherine Gayton when I first added her to my Overwhelming List. She seemed to hold some real potential, though her books have been so neglected as to have virtually ceased to exist. From what I could find about her, her handful of historical novels, published in the span of a little over a decade during and after World War II, sounded enticingly like cousins of Georgette Heyer's irresistible historical romances. And when a reader, Grace, mentioned that she had actually tracked one of them down and gave it a thumbs-up, describing it as a sort of middle-class Heyer, I knew I had to try to get my grubby hands on one or more of her books (only a figure of speech, of course—I am nothing if not OCD about hand-washing).

Fortunately for me, the Interlibrary Loan folks at the San Francisco Public Library are heroic in their efforts, and when I finally got around to trying to find a copy, they managed to track down a very worn, bedraggled copy of Gayton's debut from the wonderful Boston Athenaeum, a book described in some contemporary reviews as a novel and in others as a story collection. Easy to see the confusion now, as the book is really a little bit of both. 

Basically, the book is based around the unlikely but entertaining premise that a mid-Victorian, middle-class businessman and his rather puritan wife would agree to allow their four restless daughters (the youngest only 17) to head out into the world for a year to explore and discover—what in much later years might have been called "finding themselves." The four sections, or stories, are devoted to the experiences of each in the big, surprisingly-not-so-bad world. 

It must have been an appealing enough concept for the book's 1940 audience, and indeed it's an appealing enough concept for 2015 (at least for a reader like me), but it rather strains credibility to believe that such would have occurred in 1857. The only explanation offered in the novel is the girls' unlikely bloodline passed down from their oh-so-respectable mother:

From Mary Ann Sinning they inherited Blood; and blood, in their station of life, was difficult either to disguise or to account for.

… Mrs. Sinning was herself of blameless character and entirely hidebound by convention. But her father (who had never bothered to acknowledge this one of many offsprings by farmers' daughters) spent his days in a lively manner; dividing his time between unbridled licence at his estate in Wiltshire and alternate periods of extreme asceticism in a French Carthusian monastery. This odd infusion of fire and brimstone into their otherwise inoffensive blood, explains why Mary, Eliza, Amelia and Deborah Sinning were anxious to try their wings in a sphere unbounded by dusty bookshelves and the quiet streets and gardens of a faded country town. The distressing secret of their mother's birth had been carefully guarded from them, but like all family skeletons, it rattled its bones loudly enough for them to hear, and they relished the existence of a romantic family blot more than all the respectability and substance of being the daughters of Mr. Sinning of Bath.

Of course, numerous young women in 1857 must have felt the urge to try their wings, but for most the urge would have been to no avail. In Gayton's fictional world, however, the Sinning girls' wings do indeed get tried, and with rather implausibly happy-making results. 

Mary, the oldest, with literary ambitions, goes to the Thornes in London—supposedly as governess to the five small Thornes, but really more as a companion to the wild young Miss Thorne, on the verge of her coming out but apparently already rather out as it is. While chasing after her charge, Mary manages to encounter some of the literary elites of the day. Eliza chooses an aristocratic house in Wiltshire, where much is made of the discomforts, including frigid cold and a starvation diet, but is lured away to St. Petersburg and Moscow by a Russian prince with ulterior motives.

Amelia, who dreams of running her own school someday (perhaps a rather surprising aspiration for a young girl in 1857 with little enough education herself), heads to Ravenham in Norfolk, a setting directly out of the Brontës or Ann Radcliffe, complete with abandoned priory rumoured to be haunted by the nuns who were forcibly removed centuries before. Add to that a surly widowed father and the children who have been traumatized by his strictness, and you have the perfect mixture upon which Amelia's incorrigible energy, optimism, and newfangled ideas can work their magic:

Amelia controlled a sudden desire to laugh and looked up for another frank and longer survey of the Ogre of Ravenham Priory. To her surprise and a little to her confusion, she met a straight, uncompromising look in return, from a pair of sunken, melancholy blue eyes that were gazing fixedly at her out of a gaunt, deeply-lined face with a tanned and furrowed skin. Amelia's clear grey eyes were caught and held by that look, until she slowly dropped them, with the colour heightened a little in her cheeks.

Jane Eyre eat your heart out!

And finally, Deborah, the baby of the family at 17, runs away to Paris where's she enslaved as a lady's maid by the terrible Lady Trotter, who uses her to sew all her fineries for high society do's, until she meets a down-to-earth American businessman and his ditzy daughter, in Paris for fashion inspiration to take back with them to their thriving clothing business in New York City.

Jacket description, happily pasted into my library copy

The four young women could practically be taken as representing the major plot lines of 19th century romantic novels, but all of the sections are quite charming and entertaining. Mary's encounters with literary greatness are hard to resist, such as this one:

Mrs. Diggins has many friends in town and took me with her for a call at No. 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea. We found Mrs. Carlyle at tea-drinking and were cordially pressed to join her. Genius was out upon his horse, but I saw his pipes, his books, and his own particular chair, though we dared not penetrate to the garret aloft where he writes, even in his absence. … The wife of Cromwell and Frederick looks frail and sickly, with hollowed cheeks and thin shoulders, but her dark eyes burn with intelligence and her wit, though a trifle caustic, rattles off her tongue with a pretty Lowland burr—

And Gayton's wit and mocking of social elitism is quite effective, particularly in this scene where Deborah talks of her visit to Saratoga Springs, where her fellow visitors believe her to be a Countess:

"Your Mr. Eugene has invited us to stay with him in Louisiana, and that very elderly Mrs. John K. Schuyler asked me to call upon her when we return to New York. So did Mrs. van Binnendyk and the Roosevelts. I told them all I was too busy, as I worked at Gubb's Store."

"Were they surprised that you worked at Gubb's?"

"Oh, not a particle. They asked if I had 'gotten' my ginghams there."

"And you said yes?"

"Of course, Mr. Jones. They were my present from dear old Mr. Gubb. And this Leghorn, Miss Sally and Miss Mamie have copied it. Why, this white cotton parasol with the pink roses—it cost fifty cents, Mr. Jones, from the store here, and Mrs. van Binnendyk bought one just like it, though I know she has a beautiful green silk one. I don't understand it at all. A fifty-cent parasol, Mr. Jones! ... and I only bought it here because I hadn't my real lace one with me. That one was three guineas, that Lady Trotter gave me."

My personal favorite was the section dealing with Amelia's adventures in Ravenham, as Gayton pleasantly satirizes the stereotypes of Gothic tales. But there, as elsewhere, I had one main critique. Since each of the four sections is limited to 50-60 pages, there simply isn't enough room for any of the girls' adventures to fully develop. Each has loads of potential, and makes for enjoyable enough reading, but each only really begins to rollick along when Gayton quickly ties it up and moves on to the next. I wanted them to go on, and to see each of them fleshed out more.

Which, as critiques go, is a rather positive one, I suppose. Clearly, Gayton was a talented storyteller, and created charming (if utterly, utterly implausible) characters and situations. So I remain hopeful that when she later turned her attention to a full-fledged novel, she may have created something really special. If Those Sinning Girls isn't quite that, it's certainly a promising enough beginning.

1 comment:

  1. Goodness, Gayton is my maiden name. I might have to dig this one up.


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