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Archive for the ‘Molly Clavering’ Category

When Dean Street Press reprinted eight of Molly Clavering’s books earlier this year, I was so overwhelmed with excitement that I barely knew where to start.   My only experience with Clavering had been Near Neighbours, reissued by Greyladies a few years ago, and I’d enjoyed it enough to want more.  Overwhelmed by choice, I chose Dear Hugo for my reintroduction to Clavering.  When, after all, have I ever been able to resist an epistolary novel?

Published in 1955, the story begins a few years earlier, in June 1951 when Sara Monteith moves to a village in the Scottish borders.  Sara’s fiancé, Ivo, had come from Ravenskirk and even years after his death in the war she remains faithful to his memory, though she is reticent for her new neighbours to know about that relationship.  It is to Ivo’s brother Hugo in Africa that Sara writes, with frank assessments of her new neighbours, humorous glimpses of her life – particularly enlivened after taking on the guardianship of a young cousin – and the occasional moments of grief for the man she has lost.

The correspondence between Hugo and Sara feels extremely well-established by the time we enter it as she is entirely frank in her letters to him.  Her frustrations with her new neighbours are clearly voiced and delightfully entertaining.  As in any village novel, Ravenskirk is peopled by a distinctive group of personalities, though Atty, Sara’s young ward, does tend to dominate the letters when he is home from school.  I thoroughly enjoyed Sara’s reports on Atty’s doings and sayings and her adjustment – as a single woman of around forty – to life with a lively boy underfoot.  Comparing notes with a neighbour and marvelling over Atty’s permanent dirtiness, she receives helpful (and timeless) motherly advice:

‘I don’t want to disillusion you, but they don’t really wash when they lock themselves into the bathroom for ages.  I think they fall into a kind of mystic trance or something, and running water helps them.  It’s the only way once can explain it.’

If Clavering had kept the focus on domestic doings, I could have left the book entirely happy and unconflicted.  But…she doesn’t.  Of course there needs to be an element of romance and there are in fact several men who appear as likely mates.  But romance is so entirely besides the point that they serve as frustrating red herrings rather than enjoyable plot points.

It is the conclusion to one of these romantic intrigues that Sara addresses in her last letter to Hugo and that left me frustrated rather than delighted by the book.  After being remarkably light-handed in her dealings with neighbours, Sara suddenly decides it is up to her to arrange the lives of her friends and tell them what is best for them, despite what they may think and want.  After only two years of village life, she has gone from amused observer to spinster busybody and it feels wrong for this charming character to act in such an awkward way.  Personally, I am all for arranging the lives of others but the circumstances here feel forced – as though Clavering wanted an ending that would surprise the readers more than she wanted to leave them satisfied.  In the end, she doesn’t achieve either effect – a poor end to an otherwise enjoyable book.

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