The Vicar looked anxiously at Lavinia and noted that she was wearing her most determined "deeds, not words" expression. …
"What I mean is, quite briefly, we are on the brink of war, and we are not doing anything about it in this village."
Dorothy Lambert published three novels during the years of World War II and several more in the years immediately following, but this is the first of those that I've actually managed to read. As you all know already if you're as interested in home front fiction as I am, it's always exciting and fun to follow a much-loved author into the war years (remember reading Cheerfulness Breaks In or The Provincial Lady in Wartime or The Two Mrs Abbotts for the first time?), and fascinating to see how they'll translate their sense of humor and perspective on life into writing about the upsets of war. And if Staying Put is by no means a flawless performance, it's nevertheless classic Lambert and perhaps has the funniest scene in all of her body of work (I'll let you know for sure when I've finished reading everything she wrote, which at the rate I'm going won't be too long).
Staying Put is in that classic village-goes-to-war subgenre that I love so much, focused particular on the widowed Lavinia Falcon, who often has schemes for keeping the villagers occupied, though she doesn't always have the follow-through or authority to keep them going, and her 17-year-old daughter Felicity, who is just at the stage of transforming from girlhood into a vivacious and (for her mother) somewhat worrisome flirt ("The Chief gave me a perfectly enormous box of chocolates … and three policemen and two A.F.S men kissed me under the mistletoe.") Lavinia also has an older daughter, Rowena, who is priggish and prickly but mostly off doing war work and trying to snag a wealthy husband, and a son, Richard, 19, who joins the R.A.F. and is out of the picture for most of the novel.
Among the sometimes zany supporting cast are stern Lady Bulstrode, who initially steals Lavinia's thunder in the war work arena; her well-liked but somewhat dominated son Ralph; the appropriately-named Miss Dampier, who occasionally has rather dampening visions of the future and is self-righteous enough to inspire loathing from most of the village; Admiral Ramsbottom, a frisky middle-aged Lothario; Mrs. Driscoll, an England-hating Irishwoman with a mysterious background who runs the village shop, and her children Michael and Maureen, who are only focused on escaping her; and, best of all, the gloriously dithering Mrs. Beckett, who rambles and gets confused and causes problems right up there with the best of her breed.
I felt the book dragged just a bit as the war gets started and everyone gets situated to undertake war work, but even in that initial section the discussions and ideas that get chewed over are interesting to read and seem plausibly to be drawn from Lambert's own experiences. And once things get properly under way, oh my, brace yourself, Edith! I can hardly choose just an example or two to mention from all the amusing scenes.
There's the scene in which Ralph goes missing for several days and is brought home, ragged and filthy, by Admiral Ramsbottom, to find Lady Bulstrode scornfully suspects him of having been on a bender, until the Admiral explains. (I won't give it away.) And there's Felicity's rather priceless reaction to bomb damage:
Felicity plunged in with a torch and looked round. "Heavens! What a mess! How absolutely thrilling! We've actually been bombed, Mummy! Isn't it marvelous? Absolutely!"
But the absolute masterpiece here, for my money, is the scene in which Felicity reports to her mother's sewing party that she has seen a strange man hiding in a tree on the hill. A spy?!?! And the party's most practical idea is to rapidly organize a picnic nearby where they'll be able to keep watch until help can arrive. I can't spoil it here, but it's the most deliriously funny set piece I've read in a good long time—several pages of sustained absurdity that had me giggling uncontrollably.
If Lavinia is not, for me, a completely satisfying heroine—more of a doormat than we are led to expect in the opening scenes, and with a strange but recurrent bias against the two young Driscolls based on class, which is irritating and inexplicable—it would be curmudgeonly to focus too much on those weaknesses when the book also contains such joyous mirth.And the best part of all is that, cued up next, I have Lambert's 1943 novel, Birds on the Wing, which is a sequel to Staying Put. Cancel my appointments and hold my calls, I'm going to be frightfully busy for the next couple of days…