'You've always been so kind to me, Cousin Harriet, and I haven't anyone else who is kind. I'm in such dreadful trouble and I don't know what to do.'
If Jane Austen had ever thought to write a novel about an unmarried mother, it would surely have looked much like Susan Tweedsmuir's Cousin Harriet. (Or perhaps I should say, if she had thought such a novel could be published in her time, since it's not so hard to believe that Jane might have encountered unmarried mothers and thought what strong literary material their plight might make, particularly in her sensitive, capable, and slightly subversive hands, and then shook her head and dismissed the notion as simply impossible.)
For of course, Charlotte Waveney's dreadful trouble is that she's pregnant, having been seduced by yet another of Harriet's cousins, Francis Cherville, the very definition of a cad and a bounder, whose estate is near that of Harriet's father, and with whom Harriet has her own history. Cousin Francis may even have felt some genuine affection for Charlotte, but his lavish spending and deep debts mean that he can only marry a woman of means, not an impoverished church mouse like Charlotte.
And of course Harriet's peaceful life, caring for her widowed father and wondering if she has left it too late to ever marry, is considerably complicated as a result:
I felt as if someone had given me a blow in the face as I realized that I had told the first lie which would be followed by an endless succession of other untruths and deceptions.
She can't tell her father, who would be horrified, her mother is dead, and her only close friend, Victoria, is now living in Rome, having married a diplomat. She can think of only one other person she might trust—her rather stern but kind-hearted and deeply practical former governess, Miss Miller, whom she invites for a stay, telling her father it's for Miss Miller's health. Together the two make plans, and in many ways it's Miss Miller who becomes the novel's heroine, gruff and serious-minded as she is:
'Yes, you have been plunged into deceit—you know what I feel about that.' She held up her handkerchief to the light. 'I tried to teach you,' she continued, 'what I firmly believe, which is that to tell the truth is the most important of all our actions. But,' and she smiled frostily, 'there are moments when it is also important to draw a long breath and tell a lie, it does less harm in the end.'
But it's Harriet whose story this is—kind and generous, but forced to rapidly mature in her perspectives on the world, under considerable stress. And she only faints once or twice in the process—Jane Austen would be proud.
The novel is initially in epistolary form, as Harriet writes the initial news to Victoria, the only person to whom she can confide all her feelings. When Victoria falls ill after failing to be sufficiently cautious of the night air in Rome (why did no one warn me of this before our Italy trip a few years ago?!), she cannot continue to trouble her with her problems and turns instead to a diary, so that the novel merges into something more like a simple first-person narrative (just as well for me, as I tend to find epistolary novels a bit irritating). This is both a practical strategy on Tweedsmuir's part and a very effective means of reinforcing how isolated Harriet is, even with Miss Miller's help.
The story is fleshed out beautifully by the domineering, cynical Aunt Gertrude, who has grudgingly provided Caroline with a home, the kind but oblivious and unfortunate Elizabeth Judson, who eventually provides Francis with the wealthy wife he desired, and a number of devoted servants. Oh yes, and a charming diplomat friend of Victoria's, who returns to England to visit his sister and bring Harriet news of her friend.
I first read Cousin Harriet just before I started to blog in 2013, and quite liked it, as evidenced by the fact that I included it in my early post about 20 books that should have been in print but weren't (here), though a fair number have since been reprinted, many of those by yours truly and Dean Street Press. I'd always meant to read more of Tweedsmuir, but it wasn't until a recent e-Bay splurge brought me a lovely copy of Dashbury Park, the second of Tweedsmuir's "Victorian stories", that I actually did. Before reading that new acquisition, I determined to refresh my memory of Harriet, and this time, beyond merely quite liking it, I've rather fallen in love with it. It really is quite like reading a lost Jane Austen novel, albeit with modernized language and attitudes which make it a rather easier read (I love dear Jane, but I do find her a bit of strain when I return to her after a long gap).
So of course I turned immediately to Tweedsmuir's other two Victorian novels, and devoured them too.
On Friday the Dashbury family was sitting again around the tea table. The damask curtains were drawn and Louise was wielding the massive silver teapot as usual, and as usual Ada and Lucy were sitting in silence. Hugh with a slight frown on his forehead cut himself a slice of teacake called Sally Lunn and ate it slowly. The room seemed unaware of its inmates. The painted gods and goddesses disported themselves overhead and the brown boiserie on the walls glowed darkly except where the gold outlining the panels sparkled as it caught the lamplight. Hugh took out his watch, snapped it open and shut it again without comment.
Time often seems to have stopped at Dashbury Park (is there any doubt at all that we're back in Jane Austen territory?!), where life can often be "dark and dull and grey" (for the residents perhaps, but never for the reader). Dashbury Park the novel, however, moves quickly, centering on the upper crust Dashburys—Hugh, the current peer, childless and anxious to ensure the estate's future, his discontented wife Louise, his sister Ada, an unmarried woman devoted to noble causes (and to bossing people around), and orphaned cousin Lucy, unconventionally educated by her late father but now reduced to being at Ada's beck and call. Benevolently watching over them all is Hugh's mother, Jane Dashbury (ahem!), the dowager, who forever tries to encourage happiness and head off catastrophe, especially for young Lucy.
As the story opens, the family is anticipating the arrival of Hugh's nephew Ludovic, the heir to the estate, who will upset the family's staid existence in more ways than one. For Ludovic, it emerges, vastly prefers his life in the diplomatic service in Rome to the prospect of the business-like managing of a large estate (I can't really blame him there, though I would take England over Italy any day). While Hugh is struggling to instill in Ludovic some sense of his proper role, we also meet his close friend, George Maxwell, a professor at Oxford, a sour, gossipy neighbor and her beaten-down daughter Katharine, a vixen cousin, Violet, who invites herself to stay, and the usual array of challenging servants and staff. There's even a brief cameo from "cousin Harriet" herself, from the first of Tweedsmuir's Victorian tales, which can only very loosely be called a trilogy but do overlap in charming ways, share similar themes, and all take place in or around the town of Dashbury.
Of course, there are happy endings for all who deserve them, and the novel has an almost D. E. Stevenson sensibility in its gentle humor and practical, forgiving view of its characters' faults and weaknesses, and in Jane Dashbury using her good sense and knowledge of human nature in an Austen-esque way to nudge each character toward their best chance at happiness. For an example of its gentle humor, I like this exchange:
"George isn't speechless at all," said Ludovic in a tone of sharpness. "It's that he only talks if he has something to say that is worth saying."
"What on earth would society be like if we all did that?" said Violet. "There would be no conversation at all."
Suffice it to say that, despite Violet, George does have a fair amount to say in the end…
In both this novel and the next, Tweedsmuir doesn't quite know when to end her story, so the last few pages get a touch sappy and overwrought for my taste, but that didn't take anything away from my overall pleasure. It was rather as if she couldn't bear to let her characters go, which is not a bad kind of fault to have.
The eminently Austen-esque theme of A Stone in the Pool is the pressing question of which is worse, two worthy suitors or none at all. Our heroine, Rachel Barrington, would surely be able to answer this question by her story's end, but we get all the fun of finding out along the way.
Rachel lives in Victorian Oxford with her widowed professor father and their irresistible and always-reliable Scottish cousin Mrs Cunningham. Rachel has hitherto paid little attention to her father's students (and attracted little as well), but as our story begins she is suddenly thrown into contact with not one, but two—first, Richard Gervase, the only son of a wealthy landowner, then Paul Sibley, son of a clergyman and studying law. Two different classes and backgrounds, very different personalities, but both like Rachel and both appeal to different aspects of her own personality. Oh dear!
We also meet Rachel's friend Emily Deering, the niece of an Oxford principal whose own family life is deeply troubled by an irresponsible father who has brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. And, delightfully, we get to see a bit more of Lucy from Dashbury Park, who plays an important role in facilitating Rachel's contact with both suitors.
I have to be careful not to give away anything about Lucy's situation or I might spoil the end of the earlier novel, and the same goes for referring very specifically to anything in the present novel apart from a slight spoiler below which you can choose not to read. But here, sans one character's name, is a scene that indicates how lovely Mrs Cunningham would be as one's chaperone:
Rachel listened entranced and drew him on by asking questions. _______ made her feel at ease, her shyness forgotten for the moment. Mrs. Cunningham woke up, saw the two young people at the piano, and resolutely closed her eyes again.
And here's one to give just a suggestion of the way things play out:
But it is dull, to say the least of it, when a young man has declared his love for you, to feel that he has put this out of his thoughts or has decided to place the matter away on some shelf in his mind.
And now just a slight spoiler. Really very slight, as it's kind of a foregone conclusion how things will go, but just in case.
I think Tweedsmuir was making a bit of an authorial experiment here, which gives the novel a slightly odd shape. Rachel's "happily ever after" actually occurs just past the halfway mark of the novel, and then things proceed from there in somewhat less happy fashion before things turn around again. I felt this structure made the story drag just a little in the middle, but ultimately found it a delightful, evocative tale with likable (and wonderfully less likable) characters.
Oh, and we also get, by letter only this time alas, another brief cameo by Cousin Harriet!
I really fell wholeheartedly for these novels, and I do recommend them. Cousin Harriet seems clearly to be the best, and Stone is perhaps the weakest, but once I read the first I couldn't wait to dive into the others, and I have a feeling I'll be reading them all again in a year or two to have the pleasure of inhabiting these characters' lives a bit more.
For those who aren't aware, Susan Tweedsmuir has some illustrious connections. She was really Susan Buchan, wife of bestselling author John Buchan of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame. John became Baron Tweedsmuir (as well as Governor-General of Canada), after which his wife used the name Susan Tweedsmuir for her later writing. She was also, therefore, the sister-in-law of Anna Buchan, better known to many readers under the name O. Douglas.
In addition to these three novels, Tweedsmuir also wrote three others, two of which, The Silver Ball (1944) and The Rainbow Through the Rain (1950), I've also read and very much enjoyed (Rainbow, along with Cousin Harriet, made it into my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen a couple of weeks ago). The other of her novels, her debut, was The Scent of Water (1937), published as Susan Buchan (as were some earlier biographies and children's books), which has so far proven impossible to track down, particularly with cursed COVID limiting my library access!
Before and after writing her Victorian stories, Tweedsmuir also published three slender volumes of recollections of the people and culture of her early life, called The Lilac and the Rose (1952), A Winter Bouquet (1954), and The Edwardian Lady (1966), which were quite popular and which are also enticing me now...