Most of you know by now that Dean Street Press has published, as Furrowed Middlebrow books, most of the fiction by Molly Clavering that was published in book form. We are lacking a few of her titles for the very respectable but still frustrating reason that we have so far been unable to get hold of copies of them. I hope we'll be able to rectify that ultimately—fingers crossed! But those who have followed my writings about Clavering closely will know that in addition to her novels published in book form, Molly published at least 24 more novels in The People's Friend, first as serials in the magazine, then reprinted in later years as "pocket novels"--small format magazine issues of about 130 closely-printed pages. These mostly appeared under the name Marian Moffatt.
Now, far be it from me to be obsessive about anything (ahem), but I've been on a quest for years now to track down any or all of these pocket novels. Particularly since we've reprinted Molly's other novels, my search has become even more intense. So, you can imagine how I felt when some of these titles came up on eBay recently—four of them in all, alongside quite a stack of other PF publications that are likely to be of considerably less interest to me. Of course, I spent way too much and acquired the whole heap.
I promptly dived into the one which seemed the most promising, a family story set in a Scottish village and following the effects on the Baxter family–widowed Myna Baxter, her daughters Norma and Barbara, and son Joe—of the arrival at Ivy Lodge of an orphaned cousin, pretty young Sally Forrest. Sally, of course, is sweet and kind and innocent, and becomes fast friends with Barbara as well as attracting the attention of Joe. But Norma, still bitter as a result of an immature engagement to neighbor Eric Johnstone, the breakup of which she blames on his brother Murray, is bitterly jealous of Sally's every move. Sally goes to work at the local wool mill, managed by attractive Ben Lumsden, where Norma is in charge of the secretarial pool, and Sally promptly gets on as her talents in design are recognized. Add to this that every character in the novel seems to be in love with another character, but to assume that that character is in love with someone else, and fireworks are assured.
This all sounds quite like a classic Molly Clavering plot, with ample room for the comedies of errors and local color she does so well. But I was oh so saddened to find that its simply … not. Although it has some of the charms of Clavering's better work, and is plotted well enough that I had no trouble finishing it, there's really almost no trace of the vivid local color that she does so well. The setting is mostly confined to a very drab office environment and the Baxters' home life—even when Sally is lost in the woods during a picnic, we get little but the melodrama and angst of the various characters. There's also, tragically, no real humor, none of the slightly rowdy comedy Molly does so spectacularly well elsewhere, and very little description of the countryside or of day-to-day life in a Scottish village.
Perhaps worse, though, is that Molly here relies far too heavily on the trope of the bitter girl, Norma, who begins to seem genuinely deranged in her pettiness and jealousy, so that it's hard to forgive her even when she (finally) has her inevitable change of heart. Not to mention that Sally in her sweetness is in danger of seeming like a doormat. There's also too much reliance on the endless romantic misunderstandings. Misunderstandings, of course, are a classic plot device, and can be used to great effect for comedic purposes and entertainment value, but here Clavering gets little mileage out of them, and the story just plods along as each boring and implausible new misunderstanding comes along.
This tale was first serialized in The People's Friend in 1955, under the title Like One of the Family, and 1955 was also the year that Molly published the wonderful Dear Hugo in book form. The following year she would release Near Neighbours, one of her very best novels. So she was in her prime as a storyteller when she submitted this one to PF. I can only assume that perhaps PF's guidelines, or perhaps the demands of serialization, proved too limited for Molly's natural talents, but what a disappointment it has been. Imagine if there had been 24 more novels all as good as her books!
But never fear, I will soon be sampling the other three pocket novels I've acquired, though perhaps with less enthusiasm than I approached this one. Where Love Leads was actually published a year earlier (the year Molly published Because of Sam), while With Hands That Heal first appeared (as The New Matron) in 1964, two years after her final book publication, and As Blows the Wind dates from 1971, five years before she apparently stopped writing altogether. Perhaps one of these will pleasantly surprise me?