To many, The Rose-Garden Husband by Margaret Widdemar would appear to be a light, fluffy, harmless story, perfect escapism for a few hours on a rainy February day. But these people would be very, very wrong. Indeed, for certain types of readers, it is the most dangerous sort of book to pick up on a dark winter day because we, unlike the heroine, have no rose garden awaiting us at the end and that makes the return to the real world once you finish the last page of this charming tale all the more jarring. Oh, woe betide the lazy working woman!
First published in 1915, I’ve had this simple romance novel on my to-be-read list since Jane read it back in 2013 but it was Bree’s review in December that finally led me to load it on to my e-reader and start reading.
When we meet her, our heroine, Phyllis, is in her mid-twenties and toiling away in the children’s section of a city library earning a scant $50 a month and feeling generally run-down, friendless, and doomed to more years of the same. A chance encounter with a girl she’d known in her hometown – now a pretty, graceful young matron with two perfectly-turned out children – has her feeling more than ever the shoddiness of her own life, with only a drab boarding house to go home to after her long days at work. And so, like every overworked person dreaming hopelessly of an easier life, she makes a wish:
I want to be looked after, and have time to keep pretty, and a chance to make friends, and lovely frocks with lots of lace on them, and just months and months and months when I never had to do anything by a clock – and- a rose-garden!
And almost immediately her wish is answered.
Friends of the library, a couple Phyllis has long admired, have an unconventional proposal for her: to marry a young, crippled man whose mother is about to pass away. The young man is not expected to live many more years but his mother cannot stand the thought of him being left alone for that time. A wife, she feels, will be honour-bound to stay with him until the end, unlike a hired nurse. No wifely duties would be expect of Phyllis and she would have considerable funds at her disposal and time to rest and make herself pretty and, yes, have a rose-garden.
It is too irresistible a prospect to decline and soon Phyllis finds herself married to Allan Harrington, who has not walked since being injured in a car crash that killed his fiancee and crippled him seven years before. Under his gloomy mother’s care, he has lived a cheerless, pain-filled life without anything to interest him or brighten his days. Into this bursts Phyllis, freed from her dreary working life and bursting with optimism, vitality, and, above all, happiness. She takes an interest in her new husband’s well-being, prescribing a change of setting, plenty of new magazines, books and records, and lots of laughter. After years of his mother crying over his bed and lamenting his imminent death, Allan can’t help but be cheered and as his mental health improves, his body slowly begins to improve as well.
It’s all very lovely and sweet and has as neat and tidy an ending as you could wish (if rather melodramatically brought about). But what an awful book to read on days when you feel like the pre-rose garden Phyllis! It is too easy to sympathize with her frustrations over dull complexions and duller hair after long days in the office, her longing for the time to indulge her interests and make friends when there is no time to be had, and her desire to be a pretty young woman rather than a tireless worker. I enjoyed her story greatly but felt all too frustrated by it (ahem, jealous might be the more accurate description) once I finished, recognizing that there are no rose-garden husbands and lazy days waiting for me! I think Saturday’s Child by Kathleen Norris, an excellent novel from 1914 about a young working woman who, over the course of several years, learns to understand the importance and joy of working hard at something, is probably the best antidote for this mood…