|Dustjacket pic courtesy of Jerri Chase|
Few things could make for more delightful quarantine reading, on a couple of beautiful spring San Francisco days recently, than one of Molly Clavering's charming if sadly rare Scottish comedies. I owe a debt of gratitude yet again to Grant Hurlock, who made it possible for me to read Because of Sam (and who is also making it possible for me to read other of her books—stay tuned!).
To the extent that most readers think of Molly Clavering at all, they tend to think of her as the close friend and neighbor of D. E. Stevenson. Which is all well and good if it encourages folks to start reading her (or encourages them to want to read her at least, since it's virtually impossible to actually do so), but I've also concluded that, despite obvious similarities in subject matter and storytelling, Clavering has very much her own style. A bit more gruff and to the point than DES in some ways, and indeed a bit less polished and rougher around the edges, but very very charming in its own right. Clavering's heroines have just a little more edge than DES's, and the narrative is more downright as well.
Mollie Maitland, the widowed, middle-aged heroine of Because of Sam, is a case in point. She's been widowed for many years, long enough for her rather surly and demanding daughter Amabel, a toddler when her father died, to be fully grown and pursuing a career. Her husband, Maurice, irresponsible but light-hearted and fun, died only three years into their marriage, and Mollie has long since settled into a happy if slightly impoverished existence at Fernieknowe, her pleasant house on the outskirts of Mennan village in Scotland (apparently not too far from Edinburgh, since Amabel commutes there to work three or four times a week). Although Mollie still thinks of Maurice fondly, we have a distinct impression that her occasional melancholy is more a bit of simple loneliness than it is pining for the long-gone Maurice.
Mollie's relationship with Amabel is complicated by the peculiarities of the will of Maurice's Aunt Euphorbia, which left her money to Amabel instead of to Mollie:
"She said Maurice was shiftless and I was a fool, and though we called Amabel after her—Amabel Euphorbia, you know, such a mouthfull—she only softened enough to send her a christening mug. Plate, not solid silver."
But Mollie doesn't mind her relative poverty very much, and is much loved by her friends and neighbors, including the gossipy Mrs Gray, the kind Mrs Denholm, a shepherd's wife up in the hills who decorates her humble home with photos of the royal family, and the appalling Mrs Noble, a flirt whose husband is overseas. She boards dogs for her neighbors for a bit of spare income, and is often seen ruggedly traipsing over hill and dale to give them proper exercise. And she has the patience of a saint when it comes to Amabel, who often seems to require as careful handling as the dogs do.
Into this contented, quite life comes a bit of very quiet drama. Mollie and Amabel are introduced to Martin Heriot, a bachelor farmer who lives nearby (never mind why they didn't know him before…), and Mollie begins to think that he might be a suitable husband for Amabel. She attempts to facilitate their spending time together as much as possible, which is aided when he asks Mollie to board a black labrador puppy named Sam for his cousin. Also returning to their lives is Mr Ramsay, the solicitor who helped Mollie after Maurice's death, and who takes a personal interest in her situation—even proposing marriage to her not long after she was widowed, certain that she wouldn't be able to manage on her own. He has had some stern words for Amabel now and again, which strangely seem to have some effect, and Amabel imagines, and dreads, that he and Mollie might marry someday. A not-unexpected but nevertheless charming and compulsively readable comedy of errors results.
There is nothing original or unique about the plot of Because of Sam. We've certainly read such tales before. But I found it as irresistible as the other Clavering titles I've read. There's something very down home and earthy about her style, so that even telling a perfectly ordinary tale of quiet happy village life, she manages to be engrossing. She's usually not hilarious, merely amusing, but there are exceptions here and there. For example, her description of a meeting of the Women's Rural Institute not only gives a delightful fly-on-the-wall sense of how such meetings really went, but also contains this little tidbit:
Up on the stage the demonstrator began to deal with a large hen, keeping up a running commentary as her fingers nimbly stripped it of its feathers. But Millie, though she tried to listen, and indeed was fascinated by the speed displayed by Miss Robertson, found her attention being constantly distracted. Mrs. Wilson and her neighbour on the other side, evidently a bosom friend, were conversing in sibilant undertones, and Millie could not help hearing at least part of what they said. She realized that they were stripping someone of her reputation feathers.
Obviously, I'm a fan of Clavering, and this is actually the fourth of her novels that I've been lucky enough to read and write about—following the readily available Mrs Lorimer's Family (here), the lovely Near Neighbours, which was reprinted by Greyladies a while back (here), and the vanishingly rare, very very lucky e-Bay find, Susan Settles Down, one of several pseudonymous novels she wrote in the 1920s and 1930s (here). I also did a detailed post about her writings here, and shared some evocative dustjackets and other tidbits courtesy of Jerri Chase here and here. As you see, I've been advocating for Clavering for years now, and hope to continue to do so. So, as I said, more to come!