One of the things I love about reading, and especially reading books written earlier in the previous century, is seeing how much times have changed. Some things remain the same and people mostly stay the same, but it's the little details, the minutiae of life that can be so fascinating. Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters has been making the rounds for the last few months or so, and while I have mostly avoided reading too much about it (since I knew it was on my reading pile and didn't want plot spoilers revealed beforehand), I knew going into the story that it had received mixed reactions. Lots of people love it but others have been less keen on it. I was expecting a story that was all froth and lightheartedness. There is certainly lots of that, and it is a fun read, but there is a bit more to the story, which raises it up somewhat from the mere commonplace.
To me, Guard Your Daughters, is a slice of life type of story. It's the sort where not a lot really happens, just the daily business of living, but life for the Harvey family is not exactly mundane or ordinary. At least the five Harvey sisters, four of them still at home, don't see themselves as ordinary young women. Their world is one that's guided by artistic endeavors. The Harveys are on the eccentric side, maybe a little bit bohemian, but the sisters are close-knit and seemingly well adjusted.
"I'm very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when they tell me how dull my life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, I suppose, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn't suffer from is boredom."
So begins the story, narrated retrospectively by Morgan, the middle sister. Pandora, the eldest is married and living in London, Thisbe takes after her father with her literary leanings (a poet in the making), then comes Cressida and finally Teresa or little T. as her sisters affectionately call her. None of the girls has had any formal education, their mother having preferred to teach them in a haphazard manner and keep them close to home. Mr. Harvey is a writer of some renown who spends his days shut up in his dressing room working on his newest detective novel or closeted with his wife to whom he's devoted.
Like any self-respecting mid-century young women, the middle girls turn their thoughts to young men. Marriage is a destination they seek but they're not entirely willing to sacrifice their work and art to get there, though it's clearly on their mind. Morgan is a pianist and when a young man finds himself stranded outside their front gate, she draws him in settles him down for tea while his car is being repaired. But he's only the first and she's not greedy. She's more than willing to pass on the next to her strikingly pretty sister Thisbe. The girls may be encouraging, but their parents are not, all but stifling their romantic aspirations for one reason or another.
It's curious to think just how well-adjusted the girls seem considering how often they are left to their own devices. Mrs. Harvey, beautiful and erudite, paints pretty pictures and rests her nerves as Mr. Harvey writes. In thinking back over the story so many cracks begin cropping up in what on the surface seems an almost idyllic country existence. But it's left to the sisters to instruct little T. until finally Pandora pressures their parents to send her to the nuns for a few lessons, an experience with horrifies and nearly traumatizes the girl. It's Morgan who must take her there and bring her back and feels devastated by it all. And it's up to the sisters to take care of the running of the house. Mostly it falls on Cressida to cook and clean while her sisters create, which causes a resentment that finally throws the household into an uproar and so upsets the balance that Mrs. Harvey's nerves are all but frayed and to shocking results she nearly collapses.
It's some of those same details that caught my eye while reading that I now wonder about. Only one fire lit in a draughty house and it's only in Mrs. Harvey's bedroom. Four girls squeezed into the next warmest room, the bathroom, where the water is shared--two baths to one tub of water. How times have changed. While the war was over, rationing was not, or at the very least certain foods were scarce. There are other things hinted at that Tutton drops into the narrative that didn't raise an eyebrow while reading but when looked at cumulatively, it's easy to see which way the story was headed. Perhaps lighthearted on the surface, but a murkiness underneath.
The inevitable comparison of Guard Your Daughters is to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (as well to YA novel, A Brief History of Montmaray), a book I read and loved in my pre-blogging days. It's the story of another eccentric family set during the years between the wars which I recall has a bittersweet end. It's been long enough for me for the details to have faded so I could read Guard Your Daughters and let it rest on its own merits. I really enjoyed it. It was entertaining but thoughtful as well. It also happens to be my very first entry on my Century of Books list. Not a bad way to begin the year.