by D. E. Stevenson
I realised that I was worn out in body and spirit with the strain of struggling along by myself, coping with the children and trying to make ends meet on an inadequate income. I had prided myself upon my independence and somehow or other I had managed . . . but now I began to wonder whether independence was so important. Perhaps one could pay too highly for it. Here, in this peaceful spot, with Mrs. MacRam to provide a firm cushion to lean upon, I gradually began to feel like a different creature. I felt years younger, with a returning zest for life—as one sometimes does when convalescent after a long illness. Colours looked brighter, food tasted delicious and every day was a pleasure.
Well, it’s a tie. This book is tied for my favorite D. E. Stevenson so far with Miss Buncle’s Book or the 4th in the Miss Buncle series, The Four Graces. But this is very different from the Buncle books. While those were clever and gentle satires of English country life and just funny, there wasn’t much funny or quirky about this one. It is a lovely family drama reminiscent of Rosamunde Pilcher’s best. It is about both the consequences of freedom and independence versus being “chained up” and, sort of conversely, the importance love and sharing one’s burdens.
Katherine Wentworth is a 27-year-old widow raising her 16-year-old stepson, Simon, and her two own young twins. Although a very happy “whole family” they struggle financially. We learn that her beloved late husband, Gerald, was from a very wealthy titled family but was cast off when he refused to fall in with his father’s plans for his future and made his own way after going to Oxford and later becoming a professor. To add to those sins, as a young man, he married an Italian girl who later died in childbirth. Katherine has had nothing to do with his family and vice versa. Meanwhile, she meets a former school acquaintance, the neurotic shallow Zilla who has a very nice and attractive brother. Despite being independently wealthy, Alec works as a successful lawyer much to his sister’s frustration. She is very possessive and manipulative and wants him constantly at her beck and call. In spite of Zilla, Alec and Katherine become good friends. At the end of Part One, Zilla offers Katherine, who sorely needs a care-free vacation, her remote cottage in the highlands of Scotland for the summer. And much to my wonderment, as I went into this book cold, Simon is contacted by his grandfather and summoned to his father’s family’s estate, Limbourne. It seems the heir is dead, and the estate and title will eventually pass to Simon. As Simon says, He wants to make sure I “don’t eat peas with my knife.”
Part two takes place at Limbourne. Simon refuses to go without his “Mums,” Katharine. Although they are welcomed courteously and treated well on the surface, Katherine and Simon know it is not for their own sakes, but because they have no other choice. The estate is entailed and Simon will inherit it no matter how the family feels about it. Yet, because Simon is an awesome kid, the tyrannical and intimidating grandfather genuinely likes and approves of Simon. Katharine is afraid. There is something not quite right with the family at Limbourne. There is something vaguely sinister and uncomfortable about the place.
Like everything else at Limbourne, the rose-garden was a model of tidiness. There were grass paths between the beds—paths of velvet smoothness—and there was not a weed to be seen. I thought suddenly of my daughter and her remark: ‘Funny sort of garden with no daisies!’ She would think this a very funny sort of garden, there was no doubt of that. The roses grew in orderly array, each little bush perfect in shape, bearing perfect blooms. I asked Medlam how he managed to attain such perfection and he explained that there was a nursery behind the beech hedge so that any bush which was not perfect could be replaced. ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it, ma’am?’ said Medlam, looking round with complacency. ‘It’s the best rose-garden in the county.’ It was beautiful of course—roses are always beautiful—but to my mind it was too tidy and neat. The roses did not look happy; perhaps they were aware that if they failed in their duty to their owner they would be rooted out, thrown on the rubbish heap, and replaced by another rose-bush from the nursery garden behind the tall beech hedge…. He escorted me through a gate in the hedge. Here there were more roses, dozens and dozens of little bushes, their exquisite flowers filling the air with fragrance. There were red and white and pink and yellow roses in prodigal confusion. ‘I’m afraid it isn’t very tidy, ma’am,’ said Medlam apologetically. ‘It isn’t really for show, you see. We just plants them here temporary until they’re wanted.’ ‘I like it,’ I said. ‘The roses here look natural and happy and their scent is far sweeter.’ Medlam did not deign to reply to this piece of nonsense.A Metaphor for Limbourne and its denizens
His grandfather wants to keep Simon at Limbourne and under his power. Simon has a good head on his shoulders and is devoted to Katharine and his half-siblings but will he be seduced by the wealth and advantages his Grandfather offers?
Part 3 takes place at the rustic cottage in Scotland where Katherine is spending the summer with her 2 young children. She has reluctantly left Simon on his own to spend another week with his newfound family. He is happy and excited to do so. Much to her surprise, Alec has come to stay nearby as well, and she is not sure how she feels about that. One night, without warning, Simon shows up ahead of time and he is behaving strangely and disturbingly. He claims everything is fine but Katherine knows better. What the hell happened? **End Spoilers**
This was so good. I loved the lovely Katherine and her family with their strength and wholesomeness matched up against their wealthy and outwardly nice but inwardly corrupted relatives. The inevitable romance turned surprisingly tender and touching. I sighed. I am just starting the sequel now and am anxious to read if we visit Limbourne again. Can this family be saved? This book ends on a hopeful note. Maybe?
April 22, 2022