When Edward came in and told me that we were ruined, I was sitting in the peacock boudoir in Estcourt House, Park Lane, wondering whether life could possibly hold anything more monotonous than the existence of a woman of fashion.
You have to admit that it's an opening that's loaded with potential, and so after reading that line I happily settled in for what would surely be an enjoyable light-hearted weekend read. And for the most part, I was not disappointed. This tale of a fashionable aristocratic couple, Edward and Gabrielle, who are relegated to a country cottage, with only (gasp!) Mrs. Honeybun, a boozy charwoman, for an indoor servant and her equally challenging sometime beau, Cattermole, for a gardener/farm help, reminded me by turns of Denis Mackail's Greenery Street and E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady novels.
For all the towering piles of novels which end in joyful teary-eyed weddings, it's surprisingly rare to find novels about couples that are already happily married and remain happily married throughout, so Horn's novel is a pleasant change of pace right from the start. And if at first it reads like a rather too-light romance of a rich couple facing adversity (but never too much adversity, of course), it is advanced somewhat beyond that level by the biting humor that occasionally surfaces and its mockery of upper crust assumptions and superficiality.
Often the humor is just in passing. I got a morbid chuckle from Gabrielle's sadness at the renting of their London house:
Estcourt House had been snapped up as soon as it was known that it was to be let, but to my disgust its new owners were some very rich people who had made their fortunes by driving pigs up into a machine and out again as sausages.
And of course some of the laughs are on the couple, who are not at all well-suited for country living:
"Well, well, darling, you know that you could not have killed that hen yourself," I said soothingly. "You remember how you tried once, and—and—"
The memory was such a painful one that silence fell between us for the moment. It had perhaps been more painful for the hen, but Edward looked in more kindly fashion at the recumbent Cattermole.
Much of the humor is at the expense of their pretentious nouveau-riche neighbor, Mrs. Spink, who married well and has adopted the approach of being more royal than the king in the niceties and poshness of everyday life:
"Thank you, Mrs. Spink," I said, measuring out the sugar slowly. "It is very kind of you to trouble about us; but the present arrangements suit us perfectly, so far. We cannot afford to keep any servants."
"Dear me," said Mrs. Spink, "how truly terrible! Now I cannot imagine an existence without a powdered footman."
I imagined that in the days when she weighed the butter and lard behind the counter she must have contented herself with the flour on her own head; but I merely said very softly that I thought her intelligence must be a limited one, and she looked sharply at me, evidently trying to reconcile the rings upon my fingers with my penurious condition.
I have to admit, though, the class satire of Horn's novel is a bit muted by her main characters' own class pretensions (which already come through a bit in the quotations above). For example, it's rather ironic, as Gabrielle mocks Mrs. Spink's absurdities, that Gabrielle herself has, just a few pages earlier, made this statement in all apparent seriousness:
It was much easier to tell the first footman, since all he said was: "Very good, my lord:" in the same tone in which he might have taken Edward's order for the motor brougham. But then footmen are always inferior beings, and how they ever fledge into butlers is a sheer matter of surprise to me.
Ultimately, the book's satirical slant struck me as a gentle poking of fun at the upper classes with whom it is clearly in sympathy, rather than any real attempt to deflate them. Uppity social climbers may not be viewed sympathetically, but those who are already at the airy heights of society are viewed sympathetically, even in their eccentricities.
This may or may not be a problem for most readers, depending on how comfortably one can slip into a rather superior mindset. I had little trouble enjoying Gabrielle's narrative, even when her viewpoint had little in common with my own. On the other hand, another element of Horn's novel was considerably more distressing for me. This passage between husband and wife, taken from the earliest pages of the novel when the two are still coping with their newfound poverty, might give a clue as to my critique:
"Little Souris, sweetheart Gabrielle, I thank God for you every day of my life-for your pure, innocent heart, and your loving, transparent soul, and, believe me, if I could spare you one pang of privation in all this, I would do it by taking every trouble on my own shoulders…"
" And nice broad ones they are," I said, with a little sob, as I patted them. "Only remember, Edward, that a wife's greatest happiness is to help her husband and to share everything with him, poverty as well as wealth; and really, considering what people can manage to live on in the country, we must have been very extravagant."
A tiny bit of such sentimentality is likely to go a long way with most modern readers, and I'm happy to say that for most of the book it is regularly diluted with good humor. However, the last third or so of the novel, when a tragedy (of sorts) occurs, descends far too much into melodrama for my taste, with Gabrielle in the role of downtrodden wide-eyed waif from just about any early Charlie Chaplin movie. (This is why I gravitate to the mid-20th century rather than its earliest years, as there seems to have been almost a requirement for authors to force their characters into such hand-wringing and teary-eyed convulsions.) And the novel's rather ridiculous deus ex machina ending also left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
However, these are really only quibbles, which I mention as much because I was frustrated that they weakened what was till then a very sweet, funny, and highly entertaining romp as because they are so terribly bad. For the most part, one can breeze right over these passages, and ultimately the novel remains a high-spirited, fun, and enjoyable comedy of married life. If it's never entirely plausible, and if its sympathies are always clearly with the upper classes it purports to mock, well, that didn't stop me from enjoying it quite a lot.