At the beginning of March, I posted (at long last) my new Hopeless Wish List, and I've already been amazed by the extent to which many of my greatest hits of hopelessness have already been dispelled by hope. (And heaven knows we all need, on both sides of the Atlantic, to have some hopelessness dispelled these days, don't we?!)
You'll be hearing more about the formerly hopeless titles in upcoming posts. You'll also be hearing more about one particular, very generous reader, who prefers not to be acknowledged by name and who will therefore henceforth be known here as my Fairy Godmother. The wonderful F.G. has not only given me access to several titles from my hopeless list, but she's also been fulfilling my wildest Mabel Esther Allan fantasies by making it possible for me to read some of MEA's rarest titles. She has also kindly provided me with scans of numerous glorious dustjackets from her amazing collection. Since I'd never seen many of these covers, I'm including the first few in this post (there will be more down the road) and discussing the first of the rare MEA titles I dived into, which has quickly become one of my two or three absolute favorites.
Rye, on the south coast of England, was one of my favorite spots on our trip to England a couple of years back, and I wish we could have spent much more than one night there. So what could be a more perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy extraordinaire than The Amber House, about a young woman bravely facing the hardship of spending a year living in an historic house there while helping her prickly great-aunt write a book about the house's past and exploring the town and its surrounding areas?
Helen Brierley is happily preparing to accept a job as a secretary at Cloud Ridge School (an institution MEA fans will recognize) when her great aunt, Mrs Rossett Somerton (even the name sounds cranky), writes to Helen's mother and proposes that she serve as her own secretary as she puts together a long-planned history of the Amber House. Said house, described as the most famous building in Rye apart from the Mermaid Inn itself (no mention in the book of Lamb House, rather oddly, which undoubtedly is the second most famous building in Rye), is so named because it was once the home of a very valuable Bronze Age amber cup, which has now been lost for many years. Before that, the house was the Neptune Inn, a "noted smugglers' haunt" with lots of secret passages and enticing nooks and crannies, so perhaps MEA intended it to be a sort of fantasy alternative version of the Mermaid Inn itself, transformed into a seductive old house?
Helen is reluctant to accept the job and is nervous of her great aunt (properly her grand aunt, as anyone who does genealogy—but no one else—knows), but her parents feel the experience will be good for her. She therefore makes her way by train to Rye, encountering along the way a handsome young medical student named Peter Glynde, who lives just across the marsh in the similarly ancient and scenic Winchelsea. Rounding out the novel's cast are Anderida ("Derry") Brown, the daughter of a well-known archaeologist, who has made it her mission to track down the lost amber cup, Mrs Pelham, the kindly housekeeper, and Basil Ingworth, a clunky, clingy, and generally annoying schoolboy who is Great-Aunt Rossett's ideal as a social companion for Helen—but not Helen's.
|Artist uncredited, but I think it has to be Shirley Hughes? (Especially|
considering that the girl on the left is the spitting image of the girl on the
Lost Lorrenden cover above!)
There aren't a lot of surprises in dear Mabel's handling of these plot elements, but oh what charming elements they are. The Amber House is an effective widening world novel as well as one of MEA's best-ever bits of armchair tourism. There's also a bit of a romantic element that doesn't become sappy or angst-ridden, as a few of her later titles are prone to do. Even the ordinary subplot of the difficult relative being loosened up (at least a bit) by contact with a spunky young girl works well here. And Helen IS spunky, and stands up for herself when necessary, which also puts her streets ahead* (see bottom of post) of some of MEA's later romantic heroines. She's eager to please, smart, capable, and competent, but she refuses to be a doormat (for which, of course, her aunt ends up admiring her).
The middle-1950s seem to be a high point in Mabel Esther Allan's career, at least as far as the elements I most enjoy go. When reading The Amber House, I thought of two of my favorite Allan books, Changes for the Challoners, another great armchair travel story, and The Vine-Clad Hill (aka Swiss Holiday), one of MEA's best widening world stories. Looking at the complete list of MEA's titles, I see that Changes appeared the year before Amber House, while Vine-Clad Hill appeared the same year, so I'm now eager to get a closer look at some of her other books from those years. Glenvara, perhaps? Lost Lorrenden? Ann's Alpine Adventure? Hmmmmm.
I owe a major debt of gratitude to F.G. And you haven't heard the last of her!