I’m not sure what’s going on with my reading this spring; I seem to have gotten stuck among the crinolines, as it were (though only one of the books I’ve read has actually had crinolines in it, this being the just-post-Civil-War Sea Jade), what with my newly discovered fondness for Georgette Heyer’s Regency heroines, and now these two similar but oh-so-different “American gothic” vintage romances. Maybe it’s just that I’ve run out of D.E. Stevensons, which made admirable escape reading through much of March.
April – unbelievable that it’s so close to over already! – has brought its usual share of real life busy-ness, what with being in the plant nursery business, and still providing taxi service to the dancer, and a mountain of paperwork relating to taxes, and even a little bit of lambing, though we’re presently down to a tiny vestige of our former flock, and sometimes I almost forget that they’re out there, what with the more-than-competent teens running things in the barnyard these days.
Spring does seem to have arrived, after dragging her heels rather reluctantly this year, and yesterday brought us a warm wind and the overnight emergence of leaves on the cottonwood trees down by the river – with associated heavenly aroma; the colloquial name for these trees is “Balm of Gilead”, and the fragrance of the sticky sap is indescribably spicy and fresh and green and evocative of every good thing about spring in the country. Our venerable (and almost completely non-productive) apricot tree has blessed us with blossoms this year and yesterday was alive with bees, and (hurray!) the hummingbirds are back. The harbinger of what will become a lively and prolific horde, a lone male Rufous, buzzed through the garden, hovered low to visit the first opening Pulmonaria blooms, and danced in front of the kitchen window, an action which brings forth the lady with the sugar syrup every year.
Amazing that such tiny scraps of feathers and attitude make such long journeys twice a year on their migratory travels, and every year I wonder just how long each individual can survive for. I know we have some of the same birds year to year; how else to explain their immediate presence at the traditional feeder sites before I get the sugar water out, and the buzzing at the one window next to the door where I always emerge with the top-ups through the months when we host our demanding little visitors?
The mosquitoes are here as well, and this less welcome sign of spring was in evidence yesterday. Slapping mosquitoes with potting soil encrusted hands leads to embarrassing smudges on the face and dirt in the hair; luckily I had no human visitors to comment on my disarray! In the evening we built a fire out in the stone ring by our favourite sitting spot on the lawn and ate our supper in a cloud of smoke (welcome because it discouraged the mosquitoes), kept company by the two dogs, the two “barn” cats – big joke, that designation – they are in the house more than occasionally – plus the three “real” house cats, who are glorying in the present situation of open windows unblocked by screens. In and out at will all day long without needing a human hand on the doorknob – feline nirvana!
The teens, careless as only those in the second decade of life can be to the quiet joy of sitting out on a spring evening, were firmly planted in front of their laptops, cruising Facebook and doing whatever else it is that they do when enjoying their non-school-related screen time, though they did remember their filial duties enough (once reminded by loud calls from the father figure) to bring their parents a welcome cup of tea. (It wasn’t that warm out there, even with the fire.)
We sat and read until it was too dark to see the words, and I powered through the book I’d grabbed from the “recent acquisitions” pile in the porch, where I’d been going through them and making up a box full for my housebound elderly mother. Mom enjoys the occasional Phyllis A. Whitney, and I’d found an older one with a gorgeously gothic cover illustration, Sea Jade, which didn’t ring a bell as one she’d already read. “I should really try this,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps, like Heyer, Whitney is one of those authors I’ve ignored for too long. Perhaps she too has hidden qualities I’ve foolishly been depriving myself of…”
Short answer: nope.
I almost quit on Sea Jade very early in, but was too lazy to get up and go search for something else; and after a while the sheer awfulness exerted a hypnotizing effect, and I was driven to keep reading by the desire to see how many of the stock gothic romance situations the author was going to put her breathless heroine through. (I lost count.)
Which had me musing this morning on what makes a book a “good” read. Why two such books as these I’ve just read can have so many similarities in plot and character and setting, and why one can be so enjoyable, and one such a blatant mistake. Author’s voice is all I can come up with.
Well, if you made it this far, I’m about to get back on track and discuss some books. Both are vintage gothic romances, with American settings, and both are by accomplished and prolific authors. I found it rather interesting that my favourite was by the lesser-known and less popular author. Margaret Bell Houston is virtually unknown now, while Phyllis A. Whitney is still very much in evidence, both in online discussions and on the shelves of used book stores.
Houston’s gothic was very good indeed; Whitney’s was not. Rather disappointing, as I wanted to like Sea Jade so very much… there are so many Whitneys out there, and she’s so easy to acquire, while Houston’s titles, aside from the book I read, Yonder, are much more elusive.
Yonder by Margaret Bell Houston ~ 1955. This edition: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1955. Hardcover. 242 pages.
My rating: 9/10.
This was one of those rewarding random acquisitions. I was attracted by the eye-catching dust jacket illustration by Paul Galdone, which led me initially to believe that this was a juvenile/teen book. It’s not. (Though any nowadays teen wouldn’t turn a hair at some of the content, which has a decidedly adult theme. Sex and illegitimate babies and so on, not to mention crimes of passion and plenty of psychological drama.)
Olive York, twenty-two years old and recently orphaned by the deaths of her beloved parents in a plane crash on their way to a church convention in California – Olive’s father was a parson – is at a rough point in her life. Her long-time friend-turned-romantic-interest, Dane Carrington, has just married another woman, and, though Olive is a sensible enough girl and does not believe her life is over or anything dramatic like that, she’s looking for a way to move on.
When she’s offered a job as a companion to an emotionally troubled relative of the Carringtons, she’s intrigued both by the vague explanation of Zoé Croome’s ”insanity”, and by the descriptions of the Croome family’s estate on a remote Florida key, Yonder Island.
Arriving in an almost-hurricane, the setting is all Proper Gothic Romance, and when we meet the Croome family and their assorted associates, we recognize immediately that here is a group of people with more than a few deep dark secrets. Watch out, Olive!
There’s the immense, handsome, stone-faced and monosyllabic black houseman, Ezra; the white-uniformed nurse Nannine; Judge Croome, family patriarch, forceful and intense but obviously getting rather tired of life; the elder Croome daughter, Joanna, wheelchair bound, even more intense than her father and in charge of the operation of the household and Yonder Island citrus groves; and of course Zoé Croome herself.
Thirty years ago something happened, something that isn’t discussed within the bosom of the family, but which is speculated on by the rest of the neighbourhood at large. Whatever It was has affected Zoé so strongly that her mind has stayed locked in time; she speaks and acts as a young woman, repeating the days of her youth over and over again. “This is the day!” she greets every morning, emphasis on “the” day; obviously a day when something marvelous is about to happen. But what could it possibly be?
Not only is her mind stuck in its groove, but her body is as well. Though a woman of fifty, Zoé looks like a young woman – unaged and of an ethereal beauty. She is “crazy, but not violent”, and a delicate hand is needed in her management. She is constantly looking or someone or something, and if she is locked up she goes wild with self-destructive passion; her bedroom windows are barred to prevent her throwing herself out, as she once attempted to. Olive’s primary job will be to accompany Zoé on her daily meanderings down to the beach, where Zoé collects seashells and gazes longingly at the boats passing by. Occasionally she runs into the waves…
Of course Olive, being a typically forward-thinking person as gothic romance heroines frequently are, is keen to get to the bottom of the many mysteries of Yonder Key, and she is certain she can help Zoé move forward in time and find some sort of personal peace. In this she is strictly forbidden by bossy Joanna to “meddle”, and Ezra threateningly shadows Olive’s every move. Despite this discouragement, Olive persists in putting together Zoé’s back-story, with the increasingly interested assistance of Richard Lowrie, who lives alone in a little house across the island. Richard is working on one of his best-selling books about discoveries made while sailing the world’s seas in his one-man yacht. Richard is a long-time Croome family friend, hence his permission to inhabit his quiet corner of the Key, and is a confidante of both Judge Croome and, in her more lucid moments, Zoé. (Joanna keeps her distance.)
And of course, as Olive starts to investigate and ask awkward questions, things begin to happen.
This was an excellent read. Olive’s voice (the story is told in first person narration) is rather stoic and matter-of-fact, but that was a strength, rather than a weakness; the fantastical elements of the story are rather more believable when presented so dispassionately. Olive paints vivid pictures of both the world of her own past, and of her new life on Yonder Key. The author has, in general, done well by her heroine in this story, allowing her scope to go about her clichéd path from mystery to resolution with reasonable motivations for everything she does. The romantic interests in Olive’s personal life are very well handled, and, as we discover the secrets of the Croomes, there is a certain plausibility to the tale which allows us to suspend our disbelief in the dramatic scenario which eventually unfolds.
Without going into spoiler mode, because this is a great little book and one which I’d recommend for further investigation to those of you who like a good du Maurier-like suspense novel - and yes, this one deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the works of Dame Daphne – it is very well done, in a minor key of the genre – I’ll share with you my satisfaction in the ending. The Yonder mystery is solved, and both Zoé and Olive find places of peace after their trials and travails.
I’ll be re-reading this one, I know, as well as looking for other books by the author.
Oh yes, the author. She is (was) Margaret Bell Houston, granddaughter (as every mention of her I can find emphasizes) of Texas soldier and politician Sam Houston, who famously led the state to independence from Mexico in 1836. (“Remember the Alamo”, and namesake of the city of Houston, Texas, etcetera, etcetera.)
Margaret was born in Texas in 1877, and was a published poet at an early age, winning numerous awards for her verse throughout her lifetime. She went on to write short stories, and something like thirteen novels, some of them bestsellers. The one most often mentioned is this one, Yonder, and its more than decent quality makes me immensely curious to explore more of her work. If Yonder is the best thing she produced – it was published in 1955, when the author was 78 years old, and nearing the end of her long life – she died in 1966, at the age of 89 - it must have come from somewhere, and I’m thinking her earlier works would show a similar quality. Yonder is not “high literature” in any sense of the term, but it is a good American light novel.
Is anyone familiar with this author, or any of her other works?
Well, after my satisfaction with Yonder, I picked up Sea Jade with high anticipation. Sadly, I was doomed to disappointment. “Gothic” it was; “good” it was not.
Sea Jade by Phyllis A. Whitney ~ 1964. This edition: Fawcett Crest, 1966. Paperback. Library of Congress Number: 65-12605. 224 pages.
My rating: 3/10.
Phyllis A. Whitney. I read her occasionally while in high school, though I can’t remember a thing about any of the books. Seven Tears for Apollo is one that comes to mind; I’ve had that tattered paperback kicking around for a good thirty years, though I haven’t read it recently - for at least twenty of those years. My general impression, when I stop to think about it, is favorable. My mom likes it, and has read it a few times since I’ve been in charge of her reading material; I’ve picked up other Whitney novels – they’re quite easy to come by – and she’s read them without comment and with every appearance of enjoyment.
But if Sea Jade is typical of Whitney’s work, I think I’ve perhaps personally outgrown this author.
Sea Jade is set in post-Civil War New England, on the shores of the crashing Atlantic, an ocean-side setting it shares with Yonder to some extent. There’s a similiar situation of massive family mansion inhabited by people with secrets, and the heroines of both enter the scene seeking physical and emotional refuge of sorts. In the accepted tradition of the Gothic Tale, both books even start with storms.
The heroine of Sea Jade, young, innocent and oh-so-lovely Miranda Heath, is uddenly desperately poor after the death of her lone surviving parent, a retired sea-captain. Despite an apparent deathbed warning by her father to avoid the Bascomb enclave, Miranda decides to seek help from her father’s old partner, wealthy Captain Bascomb, whom she’s heard so many romantic stories about, and whom she just knows will be happy to act as a surrogate father in her time of need.
It was fitting that I had my first glimpse of the house at Bascomb’s Point during the flash and fury of a violent thunderstorm.
The storm had not yet broken when my train from New York stopped at the Scots Harbor station. As the conductor helped me to the platform, a gusty October wind whipped at my skirts and mantle. I clasped my portmanteau in one hand and stood looking about me – eagerly and without fear.
My father’s warnings had touched me not at all and my mind was filled with a romantic dream that I fully expected to become a reality. Since my father’s death some months before, the state of ny fortunes had grown very nearly desperate. Unless I threw myself on the charity of friends, I had nowhere to turn. Only Obadiah Bascomb could help me know. He had written to me in response to an appeal of my own, and I had come running, given wings by a sense of adventure, of expectancy, eager to meet the life counterpart of a legend with which I had grown up.
I know how I must have looked that day when I first set foot in the little New England town where my father, my mother, and I were born. Since I am no longer so tenderly, so disarmingly young, I can recall the look of that youthful Miranda Heath as if she were someone else. Slight and slender she was, with fair tendrils of hair, soft and fine, curling across her forehead beneath the peak of her bonnet. Her eyes were tawny brown, with quirked, flyaway brows above them. The wind undoubtedly added to the illusion of her flyaway look; the look of a fey, winged creature straight out of a make-believe world where love and pampering were taken for granted. A creature unaware that she was about to stray into dark regions for which nothing had prepared her…
That’s page one. I’m not sure why I even turned it to page two, but I did, to find much more of the same. Breathless, gushing Miranda goes on to have all the stock adventures of a gothic genre heroine. She’s immediately forced into an unwelcome marriage with the widowed son of Captain Bascombe, in circumstances which completely beggar belief. There are all sorts of family secrets, and of course her husband hates her and wants nothing to do with her, having married her under extreme duress. Dramatic deathbed scenes and mysterious Chinese wives and exotic swords and ill-begotten fortunes feature in the scenario. And there’s an intially-hateful-yet-ultimately-winsome child, a huge black dog named (of course) Lucifer, an unexpected will, a mysterious murder (or two)… In other words, the formula as usual.
The family secret is discovered and the villain is unmasked, and there is a last-minute rescue as the hero snatches the heroine from certain death; his arrival on a clipper ship with all sails set in time to rescue her from a fiery doom is improbable in the utmost. Luckily by the time we’ve made it this far we’re used to the author’s complete lack of attention to detail, and are taking her at her word that it’s all possible. Because she says so, right there in black and white.
Ha. This tale is so silly. Be warned!
The points I left this with were for a certain amount of creativity in the historical bits involving the tea trade and the brief glory of the Yankee clipper ships. And also because the author used every cliché in the romance writer’s book, completely (I’m quite sure) without irony. One of those “so bad it makes everything else look good by contrast” reading experiences – a necessary thing in every reader’s life. Occasionally.