The Gate Marked Private (1928) by Ethel M Dell

Book review by Sylvia Dunkley: I listened with fascination to all the tales of rape and violence in most of the books by Ethel M Dell read by the other members of the Monday Reading Group. The Gate Marked Private contains nothing like that; just two kisses, one of which is portrayed as ‘a short silence’. By the time this novel was published, Dell was 46. She had been married for six years to an ex-army man who was totally devoted to her and fiercely guarded her privacy. Perhaps maturity and married bliss had taught her to moderate the sensationalism of most of her former works.

This novel is all about loyalty and devotion. One can only look over the gate and forlornly wish and hope. It is the story of two households. The first comprises the three residents of Staple Farm: gentleman-farmer, Silas Hickory, suitably portrayed on the book jacket, his step brother, Peter Garrett and his foster father’s daughter, Mary Flight, a plump, middle-aged housekeeper. Silas is well-born, taciturn, determined, grammar school educated whilst the other two had attended secondary school, were deferential and devoted to him. The other household comprises the residents of Little Staple Farm, tenants of Hickory. Roberta (Bobby), the daughter of a former colonel in the army in India, is nearly 40 and works round the clock looking after the animals, making butter, dancing attendance on her hypochondriacal older sister, Matilda, and trying to educate and keep in check the headstrong, seventeen year old Rosemary, supposedly the daughter of her deceased brother. Rosemary is immature, acts without thinking and can be cruel in the way young people can be cruel. She is particularly hostile to Hickory as she guesses what his intentions are.

Hickory is indeed in love with Bobby as Rosemary suspects. He asks her to marry him but she says she is not able to and the gate into why she cannot remains firmly closed to him. He then offers her a partnership which she also refuses. On Boxing Day evening, after a miserable Christmas, Bobby gets a premonition and going along to Rosemary’s room, finds it empty and the bed unslept in. At this point, on a rainy night, this independent, hard-working woman dashes in her nightgown the half mile to Staple Farm and collapses into Hickory’s arms with the words, ‘Oh, Silas, . . . Silas, I’ve lost my Rosemary! Find her for me – find her and I will give you – all I have!’ She becomes seriously ill and nearly dies.

Rosemary, meanwhile, fed up with her aunt’s restraining hand, has gone off to the ball at the Town Hall with the local vicar’s son, Percy. There she is mistaken for Bobby by Bobby’s former lover, Dick Dynamo, whom she had got engaged to in India but who had gone off to the New World to make his fortune, promising to write for her when he was ready. He has just inherited the local estate and is a distant cousin of Hickory, whose mother had been disowned by the family for marrying beneath her. Bobby had been waiting to hear from Dynamo for twenty years and was the reason she turned down Hickory. Dynamo establishes who Rosemary is but reveals that there had never been a brother, that Bobby had written to him calling the whole thing off and questioned who Rosemary’s father really was. Rosemary immediately assumes that she is Bobby’s daughter and, thus, illegitimate, which, I must admit, I had also assumed. Rosemary begs Dynamo to take her away with him and they run off to Italy. After an initial passionate kiss before Dynamo knew who Rosemary was, Dynamo treats Rosemary almost as if she were his own daughter.

The person who catches up with them is not Hickory, but a friend of Percy, known to everyone as The Old Bean. He has fallen in love with Rosemary and is determined to marry her and makes his intentions known very firmly to Dynamo who gives his blessing. Dynamo then returns to England with The Old Bean and Rosemary who are now a married couple. The news comes to Hickory and Bobby, who is still weak after her illness, that she is to meet them all in London but finds when she gets there, accompanied by Hickory, that she has been tricked and is taken to his hotel by Dynamo. There she finds out about the letter she has meant to have written to him and finds she no longer loves this by now world-weary cynical and embittered man. The devoted Hickory takes her back home and she is reunited with Rosemary who relates that sister Matilda has been killed in a car crash but before she died she revealed that she, Matilda, had been the sender of the ill-fated letter to Dynamo in revenge against Bobby who had thwarted her own marriage plans when they were in India. She also revealed the true identity of Rosemary’s parents . . .

Hickory is not aware of Bobby’s change of heart towards Dynamo and assumes she will now marry her former lover. He sets off for Little Staple Farm to wish her joy and meets Dynamo coming away. Dynamo tells him, ‘I think I may safely say that the woman you love is well on the way to happiness’. Before leaving Hickory, he cryptically remarks, ‘If by any chance you should come up against a gate marked ‘Private’, just open it and walk right in! You’ll find you have a right’. Needless to say, Bobby has rejected Dynamo and confesses to Hickory, ‘. . . all I want, Silas, is to stay at home and mind the pigs – with you.’ And the rest is silence until broken by the ever-practical Bobby declaring ‘we’ve proposed to each other, accepted each other, and wished each other every happiness. Now let’s get down to serious business! What about the pigs?’

The Gate Marked Private seemed very slow in places, and even Victorian with its melodramatic writing, but I came to enjoy it. Dell skilfully keeps the tension going right to the very end. There are several instances of mysticism. On the night Rosemary runs off with Percy, Bobby‘s dream is of a vision of Rosemary’s face, a girlish face but ‘beyond, shapes that came and went in indistinguishable confusion upon that lurid screen, voices that seemed to mock and die away ere she could grasp their meaning’, and when she is at death’s door, ‘she knew herself to be nearer to God. It was as though a door had been opened to her tired soul, admitting her to a quiet sanctuary, and loss and pain had been shut outside… She saw the fires of suffering producing the perfect gold . . .’ It is of course Hickory who urges her to ‘hold on’.

I was rather exasperated by Dell’s constant portrayal of characters’ thoughts by the expression in their eyes. Thus, with Bobby, ‘there was a decision about her straight blue eyes’ and with Rosemary, ‘Her eyes sparkled with wicked gaiety’. I did start to count the number of times Dell used this device but the instances tailed off as the novel progressed. The characterisation is strong and the various lesser characters provide an interesting diversion. The main thing that bothered me was the inconsistency in Bobby’s character – one minute she’s a strong independent woman – the next she’s a quivering wreck, totally dependent on Hickory. And how to explain Rosemary’s immediate acceptance of the Old Bean when he comes to seek her when she has never expressed any interest in him before? It seems Dell’s female characters come ultimately to be reliant on their menfolk just as she herself seemed to become reliant on her husband’s devotion.

One thought on “The Gate Marked Private (1928) by Ethel M Dell

  1. It’s very interesting to hear of the reading group’s adventures with Ethel M Dell as she has been the focus of discontent in Winchester recently. Her rather lovely, and large, 1930s house on the edge of the city has now been demolished and is the scene of high-density off-the-shelf housing development, of no architectural joy whatsoever. I don’t think there’s much discernible location in the Dell oeuvre but if anyone was able to identify any passage which might have reflected Winchester between the wars then I’d be very glad to hear about it.

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