Fiction – print. Persephone, 2014. Originally published 1949. 488 pgs. Purchased.
Mr. Lockwood is rather peeved when his wife volunteers him to handle the papers of the newly deceased Mr. Hunter, who died unexpectedly leaving behind three children and wife incapable of balancing a checkbook let alone her husband’s affairs. And he is even further peeved to find that Mr. Hunter recently purchased a paddock abutting Lockwood’s property he had spent years trying to acquire with the three hundred pounds he lent to Mr. Hunter earlier in the year.
Realizing Mr. Hunter never retrieved the note of promise to repay him having died so soon after paying off his debt, Mr. Lockwood informs Mrs. Hunter that he will take ownership of the paddock in exchange for forgiving the loan reducing the value of the Hunters’ home and, therefore, the newly widowed Mrs. Hunter’s circumstances. The solicitor invests her remaining money in a poorly performing investment scheme and, over the years, forces her fatherless children out of school and into jobs they hate in order to support their mother.
After years of feeling degraded by the Lockwoods and watching her siblings suffer in their jobs as governess and bank teller, Thea has built up a great deal of animosity towards her former neighbors. She still considers herself to be above the residents of her new community, especially the new boy next door who becomes enamored with her, Oliver Reade.
She is disappointed that her opportunity to serve as an au pair (used in this novel to mean English teacher) in exchange for French lessons at a provincial, female boarding school in France is tied to the Lockwood girls and their friend attending the same school as paying students. Her one privilege as a teacher – unaccompanied visits into the local village – lands her in trouble with the headmistress of the school and a ticket back to England.
Upon her return, Mrs. Lockwood visits expecting Thea and her mother to apologize for taking advantage of the Lockwoods’ benevolence but Thea refuses to apologize or allow her mother to do so on her behalf. Cast out of the Lockwoods’ good graces and spurned by much of the community, Thea eventually learns the truth about Mr. Lockwood’s deceit and, working with Oliver, becomes hell bent upon revenge.
It’s been over a week since I finished Whipple’s 1949 novel and I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. On the one hand, I loved how this book ended up being nothing like what I expected it to be. The summary I read only covers a quarter of what I summarized above, and I enjoyed how the book followed Mr. Lockwood’s crime from beginning to end. Obviously, robbing someone of land and, therefore, money would impact their lives in the long run, but I think most people would begin their novel at the end and use a flashback or a reference to past events to explain the present.
Yet Whipple deciding to cover so many years allows Thea’s animosity and determination to enact revenge to build, to shape her as a character before the reader’s eyes. I had more sympathy for her (and, surprisingly, for the seemingly evil Mr. Lockwood) than I probably would have had I been plopped into the middle of the story where she begins her mistreatment of Oliver. Her experience with the Lockwoods would have felt more like an excuse than an explanation.
And as she did in Someone at a Distance, Whipple devotes a portion of her novel to exploring the differences between post-war England and provincial France. In England, members of the community do not bat an eye at young women and men associated alone with one another. Neither Thea’s siblings nor her mother seem phased by Oliver’s attempts to speak to Thea alone and rather aggressively convince her to date him. In France, young ladies are kept wholly separate from young men. (Although I’m not entirely convinced by Whipple and Thea’s assertions that the English would be nonplussed to find a young man alone in the woods lying next to a young woman with her hair down.)
So where do my mixed feelings come from? It is well-written, of course, and maybe my expectations were too high, but I didn’t find this novel nearly as charming as the only other Whipple I have read. The novel turns very dark in the final few pages yet the ending was rather banal and I’m not sure the book will become one of those standout reads I’m always recommending to others as a result. Only (more) time will tell, I guess.