Friday, November 25, 2022

"Nothing short of turning a hose on her": DOROTHY LAMBERT, Redferne M.F.H. (1929) and Aunts in Arcady (1930)

"Well, we've got a lot of Free State soldiers on the train,'' he explained, "so anything may happen any moment. If you hear shooting get under the seat; there'll be stray bullets and broken glass."
He paused and looked at Joyce, who was gazing at him, wide-eyed with excitement.
"Why, you look as if you were enjoying the prospect!" he cried in surprise.
"I am!" she answered, eager-eyed. "It's too thrilling for words!"

Aunts in Arcady is another of the Dorothy Lambert titles I was recently able to get from my British Library/Bodleian odyssey, and it sounded so amusing that I jumped into it immediately after All I Desire, which I enthusiastically reviewed here. I also wanted to sample one of her earliest works, as I've mostly read later novels. But as I was reading, I kept coming across references to previous events and a character named Redferne who didn't appear in Aunts, so when I finished that book I knew it was time to go back to Redferne M.F.H., Lambert's debut novel (I think—Elizabeth, Who Wouldn't appeared the same year, but I believe came after Redferne) of which I've had a scan from the generous Grant Hurlock for a while. I had put off reading Lambert's earliest works—several of them published by Mills & Boon—for fear that they wouldn't live up to the later ones. To some extent that has turned out to be the case, but I found both books entertaining anyway.

Of the Lambert novels I've read so far—about eight or nine now, I think—Redferne is indeed the most traditionally "romantic", with a bit of gushiness here and there and a focus on a rather drab (to my taste) but "passionate" couple, as well as the slightly more entertaining couple who will appear again in Aunts. It's also surely the most action-packed Lambert, with gunfights and kidnappings and even some cattle rustling to liven things up!

I don't have a detailed knowledge of the history of the Irish "troubles", though I really should, but there's lots of unrest in Redferne between the Free State soldiers and the Republicans (not the least of it that Lady Hermione Hamilton's Daimler has been stolen by the latter), and it adds to the interest a bit. Lambert herself had Irish roots, so when she writes about the damage done, in relation to one dominating character, the imposing matriarch Madam O'Callaghan, it seems to ring poignantly true:

Her courage, moral and physical, was a local legend; her dauntless defiance of Free-Stater or Republican, whoever happened to offend her, or seize opportunities for loot, or, as more frequently happened, tried to wrest her ancestral acres from her grasp, was only equalled by her entirely efficient handling of any situation that arose, night or day, during the numerous crises of the civil war that raged spasmodically round and about Kilbarrahan, offshoots of the greater war that was laying Ireland in smoking ruins and general misery and desolation.

Sadly, the book is also rather heavy on horses, foxes, and the Hunt, which did not add to its interest for me (though I realize it might for some). Redferne has been hired by wealthy Sir Thomas to to be the master of the hunt this year, as he is recovering from a leg injury and can't do it himself. It's this handsome Redferne who has a torrid on-again, off-again romance with the wealthy Desmonds' tumultuous daughter Clodagh (ho-hum). We also meet the O'Briens—Donough, Malachi, and Patricia—the frisky aforementioned Madam O'Callaghan, the stern Lady Hermione and her niece the Hon. Joyce Aylmer, who is in the doghouse (occasionally literally) for refusing to marry a tawdry but distinctive suitor and has been sent to Ireland to be kept, effectively, in solitary confinement (not solitary enough, however)—all of whom will reappear more memorably, but often inconsistently (see below), in Aunts.

I won't summarize the plot beyond saying that it's competently but for the most part unremarkably executed. Lambert is clearly staying fairly close to romantic traditions here, not quite ready to strike out into her later originality and eccentricity, and her delightful sense of humor doesn't spring up nearly often enough—though Mrs Parke-Leverette, an old flame of Redferne's, who arrives in town to complicate matters, is a bit of an exception. She's a melodramatic and talkative woman, as both Lady Desmond ("My dear," she said to Clodagh, "once she started talking nothing short of turning a hose on her would have stopped her; a most remarkable woman, I'm sure, but very tiring.") and Sir Thomas ("Gad!" said Sir Thomas, closing his eyes, "What a woman! What a heart! But, by Gad, what a tongue!") separately note.

Aunts is much more entertaining—even by this her third or fourth novel, Lambert and her publishers must have realized that more wit and less bodice-heaving was where her strength as an author lay. But it's rather strange taken as a sequel to Redferne M.F.H. Madam O'Callaghan, who is quite formidable but rather frisky in the first novel, is here a matriarch of the most conservative order, while Lady Hermione, who played that constricting role in the first novel, is a sort of posh free spirit who facilitates the romances in Aunts. They simply aren't the same characters at all. Did Lambert get confused which one was which? Or did she just assume no one would notice? Other characters seem to have evolved considerably in the ensuing year as well…

In this novel, Colin and Hilary Conyngham-Smith—offspring of one of those mad do-gooders of the type authors loved to skewer around this time, with her committees and plans for the betterment of those less fortunate, who of course would be perfectly happy if she'd simply leave them alone—escape their mother to come to Ireland with the excuse of visiting their long lost aunt, who happens to be none other than Madam O'Callaghan—the sister who remained in Ireland, while their mother moved to England and got thoroughly middle-class. Once there, Colin and Hilary immediately fall in love with Ireland, have some amusing adventures with their temperamental automobile, and soon meet the charming O'Briens and the Hon. Joyce, and the stage is set for romance, as well as some havoc caused by the vicar's wife, Mrs. Purcell, who should hurled from a nearby tower, and her two marriage-frantic "gels", niece Boo and daughter Pansy.

Aunts in Arcady is a big improvement over Redferne, apart from the character inconsistencies and the lack of any gunfights or kidnappings, but it still contains three or four pages of really excruciating romantic bosh at about the midpoint, just after some grotesque BS about horsemanship proving that Colin is a Real Man (slightly undercut by the fact that though he's a Real Man when it comes to horses, he is hopeless at managing the car, for which only Hilary has a flair). Apart from that, however, the romantic leads are all likeable, at least, and there's some genuine chuckles here, as when the two alienated sisters finally reunite:

"I see, Caroline, that, in spite of your highly over-civilised existence, ordinary common or garden education appears to be your weak point still. You were never able to spell or—"

"I can't say I notice any difference in you either, Augusta," snapped Mrs. Conyngham-Smith. " You were always celebrated for your carping criticisms, and I see you['re] as prehistoric as ever."

It's a bit rough around the edges—Lambert was still trying her wings, I felt—but it's got enough of her sharp wit and clever characters for me to have eaten it up like candy. Not sure these two would be at the top of my list for Lambert reprints—I suspect there's much better still ahead, as I plan to explore some of her WWII novels next (yippee!)—but I did enjoy reading these.

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