Friday, September 24, 2021

"The plot thickens": H. S. (HILDA STEWART) REID, Emily (1933)

"The plot thickens," said Charles Robertson. "It's so thick at present that you'd need a lot of strength to stick an ordinary tablespoon into it."

There's a story to be told about my acquisition of this book. It's a sad tale, oft told, of a book blogger with an utter lack of self control. I tell it here as a cautionary tale. Those who follow me on Twitter may know it already, but it bears repeating as a warning, in the words of "The House of the Rising Sun", not to do what I have done.

Once upon a time (actually August 24th), I was benignly going about my incessant research, doing a search on Abe Books for books by Hilda Stewart Reid, an author I knew little about. Sometimes you can learn a surprising amount from just seeing the covers or the book listings, even if you don't purchase. Among the results, I found one listing for Reid's only novel with a contemporary setting, Emily. I was charmed, but the price was of course beyond any rational consideration.

Folks on book Twitter were suitably intrigued and suitably horrified by the price. I continued with my research, bemoaning the fact that the book was not available in any accessible library, but it did keep nagging at me. 

The exact amount of self control I have might be measured by the amount of time it took until my follow-up tweet.

A few weeks later on, I've come to terms with my decision, though it's not one I plan to repeat soon, and I can at least report to you that the most expensive book I've ever bought did not turn out to be a dud. Whew!

The Emily of the title is Emily MacPherson, all of nineteen years old and formerly residing in the Lodge in Hinton Tankerville, for which she sometimes still yearns. She is now "employed" (to use the term loosely) on the outskirts of London by Pankhurst and Euphrosyne Skinner, for whom she helps manage the household and care for their children, Health and Lenin and little Gandhi. Today, the Skinners would surely be called "woke" (socialist, vegetarian "non-fired feeders", who conveniently refuse to make Emily a wage slave by actually paying her--she is a sort of guest who is expected to work), though they're really only superficially so. As their friend Cyriack Ponting puts it to Emily:

"I always think that Lenin's name should be regarded as a gesture, rather than as an actual confession of faith. Pankhurst and Euphrosyne are charming people; but, as Mark Appleby says, they are not so much Left Wing as Left Overs from that most delightful of all ages; I mean of course the Age of William Morris."

The drama all begins when Cyriack (not so radical himself really) invites Emily to a concert of Soviet music. She finds it all rather dull, sneaks out to explore London, and ends up at a Fun Fair, where she wins what appears to be a cheap Woolworth's necklace by her hoop-la skills. This is the first move in an utterly daft game of "necklace, necklace, who's got the necklace", for it turns out to be a sort of Hungarian national treasure, stolen from Hungary by the Romanians as a result of the injustices of the post-WWI Treaty of Trianon.

On her way back to the concert, hoping that Cyriack hasn't noticed her absence, a man steals her purse with the necklace in it, though not without considerable difficulty:

Emily was not the sort of girl to see her bag snatched without a struggle. In her earlier years at Hinton Tankerville, she had played Rugby football with the Vicarage children: also Trench Warfare, Sardines and Chinese Pirates. She had introduced Trench Warfare to the guides, and another game called Chicago; so she was well prepared.

She ends up at a police station with the man, a handsome and charming Hungarian whom she refuses to identify as the thief because the police (she has suddenly come to believe--surely nothing to do with the thief's good looks) "were meat-faced ogres. They were oppressors of the Proletariat, minions of the Boojwahzee." 

Not long after, Emily encounters the ravishingly beautiful Princess Radioski, who rescues Emily from embarrassment when her clothes are stolen while trying on dresses at the Sales. The Princess turns out to be a friend of Emily's purse-snatcher, whose name, it emerges, is Calman. Rounding out our cast are Olga, a passionate communist who tells Emily she is exploited (as, indeed, she is!); Charles Robertson, an old crush of Emily's from Hinton Tankerville, who by the time he appears in the novel has lost some of his appeal by comparison with Calman; and Laszlo, a Hungarian butler who, ridiculously but hilariously, learned to speak English during a stay in the U.S. and now speaks like a Chicago gangster (or like Reid apparently thought a Chicago gangster might speak).

It's hardly necessary to summarize more. The necklace has a very lively time of it, changing hands as quickly as a basketball in a playoff game (look at me with the sports reference!), and we get glimpses of London's Depression-era bohemian culture, some highly amusing characters, and a thoroughly silly but charming adventure plot, ending up with Emily actually in Hungary. It all reminded me a bit of another recent read, Dorothea Townshend's A Lion, a Mouse and a Motor Car, which I reviewed here. Emily is perhaps not quite so tightly plotted or so laugh out loud funny, but offers other charms instead.

It's impossible to get a very firm grasp on the politics involved in the novel, but that is unlikely to bother most readers (with the possible exception of Hungarians and Romanians, who might resent their real struggles being turned into farce), and the fact that Emily has barely any grasp of them at all makes the nebulousness almost a humorous strength rather than a weakness.

In one of the genuinely hilarious scenes, Emily and her little gang of incompetent helpers stage a robbery at a party, and poor Cyriack doesn't quite come across as the brave hero:

At that moment Cyriack, who was greatly incommoded by his mask (a Mickey Mouse one, which made him, to Emily's eye, rather grotesquely sinister), and who did not in any case quite know what was expected of him, suddenly let off the revolver. The teapot in the humorist's hand was shattered into a thousand pieces. The burst of sound was followed by a burst of silence. This was broken by the voice of Cyriack, muffled by consternation and his Mickey mask: "Oh, I say. I'm frightfully sorry. I didn't--" 

A short while later, Emily comments:

It seemed to her curious that, by nature, he would have been, at that very moment, at a disarmament meeting. He had certainly proved to her that there were people who should be disarmed as completely as possible; she would never again encourage him to carry so much as a pea-shooter.

There's also a quite amusing description of an earnest, socialist-leaning play to which Cyriack drags Emily:

At last they reached the theatre and settled down to watch the play. It was a play about a typical bourgeois English family. The son was blind, and he did not try to run a publishing business like the Robertsons' uncle, but sat sadly doing tatting and listening to his mother who was dying of cancer. One daughter was married to a drunkard, who made love to the youngest daughter, who ran away with an old millionaire for fear of getting like the eldest daughter, who had gone mad because she was not married to anyone. Luckily the father never noticed this; but even he grew rather depressed on account of a friend of theirs who shot himself, after having accidentally forged a cheque because, having been a commander in the Navy, he did not of course understand about cheque-books. Cyriack was solemn but elated. He said, "And that is England." But Emily did not really think it was; at least it was not the England she knew. She started arguing about her Aunt Monica who, though never married, had always stayed sane; and Cyriack said darkly that not marrying was not altogether a proof of sexual repression; and Emily said, "There you are then"; and he said, Not at all, he did not mean that. But he would not say what he did mean. So she had to amuse herself by admiring the beautiful clothes of the three blighted sisters, and by wondering why they furnished their house like old-fashioned seaside lodgings.

One could probably make a considerable list of the plays (not to mention novels) that Reid might have had in mind when writing this caricature, which makes it all the more amusing.

There are unfortunately a few insensitive references to "dagos" and one to "wops". I had to look both up, because though I think I've heard them before I had no idea what groups they referred to. The former apparently indicates the slightly darker-complexioned southern Europeans--Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese--who (from my own experiences in Spain and Italy) presumably distressed the Brits by being better looking than everyone else? The latter is more specifically Italian, though I was intrigued to learn that it evolved from an acronym meaning "without papers". Who knew? At any rate, these references are irritating, but I suppose comparatively mild for this time period. 

Reid published four novels in all, including this one, Phillida, or, The Reluctant Adventurer (1928), Two Soldiers and a Lady (1932), and Ashley Hamel (1939). Of Phillida the Times wrote: "Miss Reid contrives to write as a contemporary of the seventeenth century and of the twentieth century at once, and it is to this perhaps that the reader's pleasure is largely due. She is at home in the seventeenth century, and takes it so much for granted that we are soon persuaded to do the same." Of Two Soldiers the Guardian said: "Scene and costume are subordinated to character, for the interest one feels in Miss Reid's two soldiers and the lady whom they served is due to them individually and not their (Cromwellian) period". And of Ashley Hamel, set in a Dorsetshire village from the 18th century to the novel's present, the Guardian said: "Miss Reid has a keen sense of the general ideas dominating English life at particular periods, and she is particularly successful with her eccentrics, such as Mr.Finch, the curate in charge in the days of pluralism, who, having conceived a boyish devotion to Marie Antoinette, holds himself partly responsible for her death because of his revolutionary opinions". As reluctant as I usually am to engage with historical fiction, if these books have anything like the cheerful energy and amusing characters of Emily, I may have to put aside my bias. And in fact, Phillida is already waiting patiently on my TBR. Thankfully, Phillida is a much less extravagant girl than Emily was, since her novel was available for downloading (in the U.S.) from Hathi Trust. I like her already.

After I'd tweeted about my extravagance, a kind Twitter follower, Tina Woelke, shared a link to a bio of Reid written by her nephew, packed with information and lovely photos (including two I've used here). See here. Thanks Tina!

All told, then, is this really a warning against spontaneous, extravagant book buying, or a seductive hint at its possible payoff???


  1. "Laszlo, a Hungarian butler who... speaks like a Chicago gangster (or like Reid apparently thought a Chicago gangster might speak)."

    Damon Runyon was very popular in Britain then and comic novelists regularly paid homage to him by introducing gangsters speaking fluent Ronyonese.

    1. Oh that's interesting. I hadn't made that connection, but now it makes perfect sense.

  2. Oh, Scott, have we not all been there? The famed "buyer's remorse," is not nearly so terrible as non-buyer's remorse, where years, nay, DECADES later, we still bemoan the item that we wilfully let get away. I still feel bad about a couple of things from the first time I was in London back in 1998. So, cheer up! You got the book! AND it wasn't a dud!

    1. Yes, thankfully, no real buyer's remorse this time at least!

  3. Yes, better to regret buying than to regret non-buying - and you could have sold it on, I suppose! Looks really fun.

  4. Indeed. I still regret not having bought two Elsie Oxenham books in 1975 because I thought they were so ridiculously expensive. Eventually I did get hold of both of them, but had to pay a great deal more!

    1. Oh yes, I can think of books I've passed up in the past too. Though as I have little self control, there's not too many of them!

  5. Sounds positively Wodehouse-ian to me!

    1. Perhaps a bit less laugh-out-loud funny than Wodehouse, but yes, definitely in the same neck of the woods.

  6. Are you considering republishing it? Doesn't that make it a business expense?

  7. As a Romanian, I am slightly disconcerted by the thought of a Hungarian national treasure being stolen, since I assume it would have been safely behind lock and key in Budapest, but otherwise it sounds like quite a fun romp. I too know all about bookish extravagance...

    1. One would think, wouldn't one Marina, but as you know Romanians are very ingenious people! :-)

  8. It sounds terrific to me - can it be one of the titles you reprint with Dean Street Press?


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