The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson (another review)

Book review by Sylvia D.: The Young Clementina was first published in 1935 under the title Divorced from Reality. Neither title seems very apt as the novel is mainly concerned with the story of The Young Clementina’s aunt, Charlotte Dean, who is certainly not divorced from reality. It is in four parts.

First edition: published by Herbert Jenkins

Daughter of a country vicar, Charlotte, known gratingly as Char, falls in love with her childhood sweetheart, Guy Wisdon, the only child at the nearby Manor House. After declaring his love and asking her to wait for him, Garth is away for four years fighting in the First World War. When Garth finally returns, the excited Charlotte finds him totally changed from the gentle, considerate man she had known to a hard, cynical, hurtful person who repelled her friendship and ‘trampled on my feelings’. She began to grow afraid of his vicious tongue although she still loved him. Then the news arrives that he is to marry Charlotte’s pretty, vivacious but vacuous sister, Kitty.

Unable to bear being in the vicinity of the newly married couple in the nearby Manor House, Charlotte moves to London to lead a lonely existence, working in a bookshop by day and spending solitary evenings in her bedsit. Kitty has a baby, Clementina, and, as a reluctant godmother at the christening, Charlotte feels that something is not right between Garth and Kitty, especially as Garth seems to be away so much on long trips exploring in Africa. After several years, Charlotte is amazed to hear that Garth is suing for divorce and becomes an unwilling witness at the trial. The divorce is granted when Charlotte’s daily testifies that on the night Charlotte thought Kitty had spent at her flat, the bed had never been slept in. The second part ends with Charlotte being asked by Garth to look after Clementina at the Manor House while he is away on yet another trip to Africa.

The bitter relationship between Garth and Kitty and the ostracism towards the family due to the divorce scandal has blighted Clementina and she has grown to be self-contained, self-willed and difficult to understand. However, through their shared love of horses and hunting and Charlotte taking on Clementina’s education in the place of her odious governess, the two become friends. Charlotte gradually forms relationships with local families and particularly with an Oxford friend of Garth’s, Geoff Thompson. Kitty who has remarried dies without revealing something important she wants to tell Charlotte and then news arrives that Garth is lost in Africa.

In his final letter to her Garth has tasked Charlotte with finishing his latest travel book and when she is asked to preface it with his biography, she turns to his diaries from which she learns the scheming Kitty had told Garth on his return from the War that Charlotte was to marry someone else – an elderly gentleman whom she had helped with the book he was writing about the village church and with whom she had made one day trip to Canterbury. When Garth had finally discovered the truth, he was distraught, angry and felt betrayed. His marriage to Kitty, which was already faltering, had turned to mutual hatred but he had allowed the charade to continue because he felt he couldn’t tell Charlotte the truth and risk upsetting the status quo. It was only when he discovered that Kitty was seeing other men that he initiated divorce proceedings. The Young Clementina does not fail its reader and has a Cinderella ending.

I enjoyed Parts One and Two. Stevenson adopted the unusual device of addressing the reader as a friend, Clare, who she hopes can help her resolve the dilemma she faces – should she assume responsibility for Clementina at the Manor House with all its distressing memories or should she remain in the quiet of her London routine. The divorce trial is an interesting set piece. However, once Charlotte returns to Hinkleton in Parts Three and Four, the narrative loses its conviction. Why is Charlotte portrayed as such an inert character when the reader is constantly reminded how proud and strong she is. How can she keep faith with a man who can say when reminded that he used to be thoughtful and kind,

‘Phsaw! That was long ago when I was young and ignorant. I thought the world was a marvelous place. I know better now, I know what hell life can be, and I know women. Women will always lie to gain their ends, they are made crooked. […] Thank God I shall be free from women for a year—you don’t find women in the desert. For a whole year I shall live with men, reasonable beings who say what they mean and tell the truth. I’m sick of women, of their lies and subterfuges. Women clog the wheels of life—they take an unfair advantage of their reputed weakness. There is little weakness about a woman when she has a purpose to gain.

Why on earth would Garth, if he loves Charlotte so much, meekly accept Kitty’s deceit without challenging the facts and asking Charlotte for her side of the story? Why does Stevenson spoil the concept of the imaginary friend whom Charlotte had modelled on a woman she had exchanged a few words with on a bus to be revealed as just a Hinkleton mother whose daughter had been friends with Clementina before the family was ostracized? Is it credible that Geoff Thompson, who contrary to the expectations of the gossiping neighbourhood, can have fallen for the thirteen year old Clementina when he himself is old enough to be her father and that Charlotte should agree that he can return from abroad in four years’ time to claim her?

This is a typical romance, boy meets girl, in this case childhood sweethearts, they fall in love, they face trials and tribulations and finally all is happily resolved. There is little challenge in that the reader can guess what is going to happen although the route to resolution is convoluted and leaves you guessing until the last few pages when it has a nauseatingly romantic end. Although Stevenson does not seem to have been published by Mills Boon, she definitely ticks their box of requiring a combination of escapism and realism from their writers.

3 thoughts on “The Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson (another review)

  1. You might find the title of the US first edition, published in 1938, to be more suitable. Miss Dean’s Dilemma. Although the phrase Shell Shock is never used in the book, when I read descriptions of the behavior of men suffering from shell shock in the works of Vera Brittain they seem to fit Garth, and explain his acceptance of Kitty’s story.

  2. I think Stevenson gives us a clear early clue that Garth’s mental disarray was not caused by shell-shock when she tells us (and several times reminds us). that his war-work was in the lines of communication. This was essential work, maintaining the supply of everything needed for the front-line troops. It was hard work, and often difficult, but it was away from the fighting.
    So Stevenson is telling us as clearly as she can that we should put his mental confusion entirely down to the machinations of that wicked woman, not to the war.
    A good account of work in the lines of communication can be found in James Agate’s memoir, ‘L. of C.’

  3. The DEStevenson discussion group at groups.io is about to start a multi-week discussion of this novel, so I will keep a look out. My memory from some years ago was that Garth had memories of a level of brutality that made him very disturbed from his leadership position in the war, perhaps sending men to their deaths? I can’t read ahead or it will mess up my mind for the discussion process, but I will keep my eyes open for this point.

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