When their father dies, none of the three Harcourt girls (Helen, Jane and Rosalie) is particularly upset. Gerald Harcourt was a distant figure in their lives and he is easily forgotten. The loss of the family’s income, however, is not something so easily overcome. When their mother Anna discovers that they have been left penniless, she decides to move them out of London and back her hometown in Scotland. Suddenly the girls, brought up on dreams of coming-out balls (in Helen’s case) and studies at Oxford (for the bookish Jane), are forced to grow up very quickly. It all makes for a very promising beginning to Anna and Her Daughters by D.E. Stevenson.
Helen, the demanding and selfish eldest sister, decamps almost immediately to Edinburgh in search of the excitement and refinement Ryddelton cannot offer but the others remain and begin to make very happy lives for themselves. Rosalie, having always lived in her more beautiful eldest sister’s shadow, begins to come into her own. Anna, freed of the formalities of her London life, is happier and more relaxed than her daughters have ever known her. And Jane, our narrator, finds an education she could never have gotten at Oxford in her work as a secretary for Mrs Millard, an eccentric biographer currently residing in the village.
After a nice slow start, lots of things happen: Helen marries the man Jane had, albeit from afar, fallen in love with and then, in the manner of D.E.S.’s evil sisters, does her best to make his life miserable. Anna gets remarried. Jane becomes an author of dramatic historical novels and uses her newfound wealth to travel the world. And Rosalie, lucky girl, fades boringly into the background.
I loved reading about Jane’s development as a writer. To me, that was much more interesting than the world-travelling dramatics of the Helen-Ronnie-Jane semi-love triangle. It is fun to read about Jane’s excitement when she gets hold of the idea for her first story and stays up late into the night each day, writing away in her attic bedroom. It was this part of the book that felt the most alive, the most believable. I particularly loved Mrs Millard’s assessment of the bestseller appeal of Jane’s first novel:
“You see, my dear Jane, The Mulberry Coach provides an escape from the drabness of the modern world.”
She took a long breath and continued, “Housewives will leave piles of unwashed dishes in the sink and revel in the richness and prodigality of the banquets which you have provided; miserable little clerks in lawyers’ offices will neglect this dusty duties and be transported to a wider life and more colourful surroundings; girls imagine themselves swept off their feet by the wooing of your masterful hero; fashionable ladies will say to each other, “My dee-ar! You don’t mean to say you haven’t read The Mulberry Coach, by Jane Harcourt? It’s abso-lootly thrilling! Everyone’s talking about it!’ Young men will choose it for Aunt Fanny’s birthday and read it with avidity before despatching it by post with a suitable card…and of course people who haven’t got twelve and sixpence to spare will rush to the nearest public Library and clamour loudly for a copy of The Mulberry Coach.”
As usual with D.E.S., the book can be split into two parts: the first is always the most encouraging, when I am caught up in the warm, undemanding story and foolishly believe that Stevenson might manage to pull off one of her all-too-rare competent endings. And then there is the second part, with the needlessly dramatic climax and hasty (or sometimes nonexistent) denouement. In terms of disappointing endings, this book might have one of the worst (best?). I don’t know whether she was constantly rushing to meet a deadline or only enjoyed writing the establishing part of a novel but I do know that you cannot rely on Stevenson if you want a satisfying conclusion. Yes, she provides happy endings but in a lazy, deeply unsatisfying way. I much prefer when she just sort of runs along until she hits the end quite abruptly to when she attempts to plot a conclusion, as she does here.
Anna and Her Daughters has so many elements of a delightful story but, at the same time, it also has all the things that make D.E.S. such a frustrating author. I quite liked it but, at the same time, there was a certain point beyond which I spent all my time swearing at Stevenson in my head, damning her for always failing in exactly the same way. Perhaps I just need to stop in the middle of her books from now on, savouring the good sections before allowing the bad to disappoint me. But I do want to get to those happy endings, I just want to get to them in a more graceful way.