I recently went on a D.E.-Stevenson-hold-placing splurge, courtesy of my local library. (The library is quite small and pretty dated, which I suppose is a turn-off for the average patron, but to me is akin to a treasure trove…Ah, if only I could browse through the storage basement!) About halfway through the splurge, I realized that all of these books would arrive at roughly the same time, as they’re all either waiting in storage or at another library branch. Which means I would have to read all of these DES books around the same time. Which, for you and this site, means a whole flood of DES reviews. To many of you, I know this wouldn’t be a bad prospect, but eh, I like to keep things varied.
With that in mind, I present another DES review! Haha.
I wouldn’t call Bel Lamington the most compelling book in the DES oeuvre (or at least the part of the oeuvre I’ve sampled), but it’s still a charming, well-written book. It begins with Bel, our quiet, undeniably mousy heroine, and the advent of spring in London. Bel is not a city girl by any means, having grown up in the country with her aunt, after being orphaned at a very young age. But last year Bel’s aunt died, and the house had to be sold. Bel took her small inheritance and did what many young women did in the early ’60s: she went to secretarial school and got a job in a London office.
Bel enjoys her job, as she was recently promoted to secretary of the youngest partner in a firm of importers. Through taking dictations and handling correspondence and generally being useful, Bel has become interested in the business. But besides work, she has no life. The other secretaries in the office are chilly towards her—she was promoted out of turn, they sneer—and some are just downright hostile.
So no office buddies. Bel doesn’t know any of her neighbors, either. Coming from a small town, where everyone knew and greeted each other, Bel is still amazed by how in London, she can pass her neighbors on the stairs and they look right through her, as though she’s invisible. She’s terrified, moreover, of falling ill and lying helpless in her apartment, with no one to worry where she is, much less know or care that’s she’s ill. Then there’s all that awful city noise!
In the time I’ve lived alone and in cities, I’ve experienced the very same bewilderment and yes, even the irrational fear. It might be a common experience for anyone who’s felt out of place in a city. In any case, when I read this little introduction to Bel’s private discomfort, my heart went out to her.
Fortunately, we see just enough of this dull, friendless life to see that something needs to change—and then it does. On that fine day of early spring, when all of nature and humanity seems to be stretching and awakening, Bel comes home and smells tobacco smoke in her apartment. A thief! she immediately concludes. But why would a thief pause for a a smoke?
She goes to the window leading out to her little rooftop garden. This garden is the joy of her life, a small piece of country living she can recreate in her city dwelling. And sitting in her garden is a young man.
Bel is wary at first, but then she sees that he’s pretty harmless. The young man, an artist and neighbor named Mark, has climbed across the rooftops and landed in her charming garden. Bel and Mark become friends. Mark also decides to paint Bel while she’s gardening, and the painting goes on display and is sold.
For a short while it looks like Mark will prove an end to Bel’s dull, unsocial life. And, for a while, he is. Mark invites her to parties, takes her on outings, and generally demonstrates interest in her. But Mark is Mark’s main priority, and when an opportunity arises for him to move to Italy, he takes it with hardly a backward glance. Bel is left a little heartsore and wary of future encounters with young, carefree men.
Around this same time, though, she reconnects with an old school friend and the friend’s doctor father, who happen to be relatives of Mark’s. The old school chum is a bit lonely, too, and she and Bel quickly become close. The friend and her father invite Bel to go on vacation with them to Scotland, and Bel wants to go—it’s been a long time since she had a vacation, let alone one in the beloved countryside—but she’s needed at work while her boss is away on business. It looks like Bel won’t get that respite after all.
With her boss away, things get out of hand in the office. Bel looks forward to letters from her boss, whom she’s obviously quite fond of (and he’s handsome, though a bit older than her). But no letters come. Moreover, while things grow increasingly out of hand in the office, Bel is left to fend for herself.
It’s hard to know where to stop so I don’t give away too much plot. But I think I’ll stop there. The big theme of this book is dependability. Bel is young and ought to be more carefree, but life has made her serious. She’s inescapably aware that she’s all alone in the world, hanging on by the flimsiest of threads. In Bel Lamington we see the beauty of being able to rely on other human beings. We see that no one can be completely alone in the world—and, of course, it doesn’t hurt to be gentle, pretty, and kind.
So my verdict is that Bel Lamington is a charming, quaint read. Once again, DES proves adept at creating likeable but realistic characters, and placing them in nice but thoroughly believable circumstances. In Bel Lamington she employs a substantial cast of minor characters. These characters come and go, but they serve as a colorful backdrop to Bel’s story. It’s these small characters who transform a DES novel into a complete DES world.
If you haven’t read a D. E. Stevenson novel before, I’d recommend starting with The Blue Sapphire. It’s still my favorite.