I had planned to read Chatterton Square by E.H. Young as my second book (following Hetty Dorval) for the 1947 Club. I’d started and was enjoying it but, knowing it had already been more than capably reviewed by Simon this week, could not fight the voice in my head that suggested ‘wouldn’t the world be better served if you reread and finally reviewed Mrs Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson?’ Yes, I concluded, yes it would. And so, on this very wet and stormy weekend, I settled down with my old friend Hester Christie, otherwise known as Mrs Tim.
The Mrs Tim books were inspired by D.E. Stevenson’s own diaries and experiences as an army wife and are written in a light-hearted, Provincial-Lady-esque style (E.M. Delafield’s diarist predates Mrs Tim by two years). In earlier books, we saw Hester struggle with great good humour and resilience through pre-war regimental life with two small children and then through the anxious war years. This volume opens in February 1946. Peace has come to England but Hester’s family is once more scattered: husband Tim is stationed in Egypt with no hope of any extended leave, sixteen-year old son Bryan is off at school, and Hester is busy deciding on a boarding school for her daughter Betty. When a friend declares that she has found Hester a job helping to manage a small country hotel in Scotland, Hester is properly horrified. In the depressing period just after Tim left for Egypt, she had considered the idea but never seriously. On the other hand, a life of solitude with little to do doesn’t hold much charm either:
I am in the mood when on forgets one’s blessing and counts one’s troubles, when nothing seems good and the world seems grey and drab. I have a son, but he has gone away. I have a husband, but I have not seen him for months. It may be years before I see Tim, it certainly will be years before we can settle down to a reasonably peaceful life. What is the use of being married when you can’t be together? It is misery, no less. All very well for Tony to say think of the future – I do think of it most of the time, but you can’t live on hope forever. There are times – and this is one of them – when the savour goes out of life, when you lose heart, when you feel you can’t go on, when you would give everything you possess for one glimpse of the person you love…
So off she goes, ready for a new adventure.
The small hotel is the home and business of Erica Clutterbuck, a gruff-mannered middle-aged woman entirely uncomfortable with having guests in her family home. Hester, as she soon learns, is there primarily to save Erica the horror of having to speak with the guests. It is a task Hester is remarkably well suited for as she is an irresistibly sympathetic figure, at times to her despair. Everywhere she goes people end up confiding in her and/or, having been misled by her slight appearance, taking a protective interest in her. She handles it all with humour and excessive good grace but takes no real pleasure in dealing with the guests. She does, however, find pleasure in a new friendship with Erica.
It is a simple novel, made up of little events rather than any sort of easily resolved narrative arc. Hester gets to know the guests at the hotel and becomes involved in their affairs but also runs into old friends of her own. Tony Morley surprises her by showing up at the hotel, a joyful reunion after six years without seeing each other. A dashing middle-aged bachelor, he is as much enamoured of Hester as ever and she is just as oblivious as ever, so secure in her adoration of the far-away Tim. There is also a madcap night of breaking and entering in Edinburgh with some young friends, new and old.
But the nicest reunions are with her children. Betty, who comes to stay during a school holiday, strikes up a friendship with Erica Clutterbuck that is at first bewildering to Hester but then less so as she realises how similar the two are. Bryan appears only briefly, having arranged to spend most of his break with friends, but the reunion between mother and son is lovely, even though it begins with rigid formality in front of strangers:
As I lead the way upstairs we are both completely silent, perhaps because there is nothing more to say. For my part, I am already deeply regretting that cool welcome and wishing with all my heart that I had thrown my arms around his neck and hugged him – and be damned to Erica!
It is too late now, of course. The deed is done.
We reach the third landing, and I open the door of the little room with sloping roof, which is to be Bryan’s room, and show him in.
‘It’s rather small,’ I begin, ‘but I dare say –‘
Suddenly I am seized in a bear’s embrace and almost strangled. The strong young arms are hard as steel. They go round me like a vice. ‘Darling!’ cries Bryan. ‘Oh,what a dear wee Mummy! I’d forgotten you were so small.’
It’s a lovely, gentle book but without the saccharine sweetness of some of D.E. Stevenson’s other novels. Hester has more bite in her than any of Stevenson’s other heroines, perhaps because she is based on the author herself? Regardless, I love Hester’s flashes of pique and acerbic asides. She is a hard worker, excellent friend, and devoted wife and mother, but she is always entirely human and I love that about her.
‘Hester!’ exclaims Grace in horrified tones. ‘Why didn’t you come to lunch with me?’
‘Too tired,’ I murmur. ‘Too fed up. Besides, bread and cheese and coffee is a perfectly good meal.’
‘It’s letting down the flag,’ says Grace reproachfully. ‘It’s back-sliding – that’s what it is. I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Hester. Think of the men who change for dinner every night on desert islands!’
‘I’ve never really believed in them,’ I reply, helping myself to another wedge of cheese. ‘And anyhow, I’ve slid.’
The first book, Mrs Tim of the Regiment, was reprinted a few years ago and is still readily available but the later volumes (Mrs Tim Carries On, Mrs Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs Tim Flies Home) can be harder to find. My inter-library loan system has proved invaluable in tracking them down for me over the years but I would dearly love to see them in print. Perhaps Virago might show an interest one day? Now that they are reprinting Angela Thirkell, anything seems possible.