Book review by George S: I ordered this book from Kindle as The Young Clementina, partly because its cover picture suggested a light and jolly romp. Only later did I discover that back in 1935, its title was the more ominous Divorced From Reality; then in 1966 it was reissued as Miss Dean’s Dilemma. And now it’s become The Young Clementina. Clementina is a significant character in the novel, but the central one is her aunt, Charlotte Dean. (Warning: This review contains spoilers.)
Charlotte is a vicar’s dutiful daughter, who is in love with Garth, the boy next door (next door being a large manor house). Garth goes off to fight in the First World War, however, and comes back ‘ changed fundamentally. He looked at life with different eyes, he was bitter, cynical, disillusioned.’
In this state, he snubs Charlotte and instead marries her pretty and lively younger sister, so, heartbroken, Charlotte goes to London to live in rented rooms and work in a travel bookshop.
The plot catches fire when the sister comes unexpectedly to Charlotte’s rooms for the night, asking for shelter after missing her train. It becomes clear that she is doing this to provide an alibi for adultery, and eventually there is a messy (and grippingly described) divorce case.
In the wake of his divorce, Garth joins an expedition to Africa, to find a lost tribe in the desert, and also to ‘find himself’. He leaves the daughter of his unfortunate marriage in the care of Charlotte. This is the Clementina of the book’s current title. Clementina is distrustful at first, but Charlotte soon earns her love. They bond partly through their love of hunting, and there are some exhilarating descriptions of the hunt. (Fox-hunting is among the activities I’d least like to participate in in real life, but I almost always enjoy rousing descriptions of hunts by people who know about them – and D.E. Stevenson does.
While Garth is away in Africa, the bad sister follows the iron rule of conventional fiction; having indulged in extra-marital sex, she has to die. She does so, miserably, expressing regret for her sins.
The book is quite cleverly structured. Charlotte is the narrator, writing her story as a series of letters to an imaginary friend at various stages in her life. This means that the narrative voice only knows so much, and cannot always understand what she sees. More about the past will be explained in subsequent sections. Imagining a fictional reader, whom she calls ‘Clare’, helps Charlotte to say things that would otherwise be difficult or painful to express.
So the structure is clever, but the book’s language is often cliché-ridden: for example
The leaves upon the trees are beginning to change colour. Jack Frost has been here in the night and touched them lightly.
Does that second sentence belong in a novel for grown-ups? A nursery is described thus:
Tea in the nursery with hot-buttered toast and iced cakes, with Nanny presiding over the big brown teapot, calm and serene in her blue linen dress and starched apron.
How many clichés can be packed into a single sentence?
What is Oxford like? Need you ask?
Garth told me about his life at Oxford, about the long quiet afternoons on the river, and about the old beautiful buildings which had housed learning for so many generations.
That’s a sentence belongs in a travel brochure, not a novel.
The characters, too, are mostly clichés. A London charlady is, of course, a bit of a character, but the salt of the earth. Servants in general fall into the two usual fictional categories: the utterly loyal versus the unpleasant and selfish. (One sign of a good novelist of the period is surely that he or she can get beyond judging servants for their usefulness, and instead considers them as human beings.)
The main characters are types we have often met before, The unworldly clergyman’s daughter, the jealous and spiteful beautiful sister, the sensitive man made misanthropic by experience. And so on.
The biggest cliché, perhaps is the vision of Englishness, always associated with old families, old houses and old furniture.
Garth’s 1919 diary gives his deeply conservative sense of England and its place in the world:
These things are needed today more than ever, these links with the past. Old houses with England in their bones. The war has torn up many roots, torn down age-old beautiful ideas. This passion of destruction which has fallen upon the world is a dangerous thing [….] England’s soul must be kept safe till she needs it again and the devil let loose by the war is chained up.”
Garth himself is a walking cliché of a noble Englishman. When he goes off to Africa and reports come in that he may have been killed by lions:
There were a dozen theories as to how he met his death — we shall never know the truth — but everybody seemed to agree he had met it nobly, like the brave Englishman that he was.
In contrast to Englishness is modernity, associated with the superficial flashiness of Kitty, the bad sister. A key moment for Charlotte after her nasty sister’s death is when she decides: ‘I would refurnish the drawing room, discarding Kitty’s modern trash, and transform it into the beautiful room it was intended to be.’ (A thesis could be written on old furniture as a symbol of traditional values in twenties and thirties fiction.)
As for the rest of the world, it seems to be there for the convenience of the English. Africa, for example, is just what Garth needs:
Perhaps Africa would heal Garth’s wounds. Perhaps he would leave his bitterness behind him and return, strong and well in mind and body, able once more to face life. The more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that it was the only chance for Garth—perhaps he, himself, knew this and was going to Africa in quest of his soul.
That lost tribe he was going to look for becomes quite forgotten; they don’t matter nearly as much as Garth’s soul. Other countries are where men go to work, but they are inferior to England. One minor character describes himself as ‘ toiling and moiling in Australia among a lot of woolly headed blacks’.
Because I collect representations of the First World War and its soldiers, I was interested in the depiction of Garth. In 1919 he is presented as coming back from the war disillusioned and cynical – but with no indication of what might have caused this fundamental change in his character. Later we find that it was not the war that made him bitter, but the duplicity of evil Kitty, who bamboozled him into marriage by telling lies about her sister. The novel was written in 1935, a while after the big ‘war books boom’, when disillusioned memoirs were tumbling out of the publishers’ offices at top speed. Stevenson’s approach seems to hark back to previous clichés, to narratives popular in wartime itself, and immediately after, when the war is presented as noble, but the women at home are likely to be untrustworthy and fickle. I’m thinking of books like Parade’s End, or When Winter Comes, or Sorrell and Son, where there’s an ex-soldier in a bad way mentally, but it’s less the fault of the war than of an utterly evil woman. Stevenson’s book fits in snugly with the attitudes of this misogynistic tradition. She was the wife of a career soldier; perhaps she is reflecting the military view of the ‘disillusioned’ war books that had become the fashion.
So – it’s a book whose attitudes I find unlikeable, and it’s full of clichés, but on the other hand, it’s cleverly structured, and I did want to read on, even though I had a strong suspicion that it must be heading for the biggest cliché of them all, with Garth returning from his apparent death in Africa, to reclaim his true love. Does it end that way? I’ll leave it to you to guess.