A historical novel about a struggling dancer who unexpectedly inherits a house in the Scottish countryside, then astonishes everyone when she decides to make it her new home. 1959.
The Bespoken Mile is a perfect example of the unfairly forgotten mid-century novel. Its author, March Cost, is given this book jacket biography:
March Cost has three great loves: her love for the wilds of Scotland, where her family lived for generations; the theatre, to whose literature she has made permanent contributions in I, RACHEL, her bestselling re-creation of a great actress; and her love of a good story.
Indeed, the contents of this jacket bio are the best source I can find for information on March Cost (real name Peggy Morrison). She published about a dozen books, and yet her works seem entirely unread today. It’s sadly befitting that on my ex-library edition of The Bespoken Mile, Cost’s face is almost entirely obscured by age-yellowed book tape.
I am frankly astounded that this author is not known today. Her writing is art itself. Her prose–like her characters–carries an undeniable, magnetic, frank charm.
We meet our main character, Summer Day, as she’s about to lose her job. Summer, raised by two performers, has made her living by being a cabaret dancer (in the 1926 sense of cabaret). Summer admits that she just always seems to “miss the bus” on life. She is a classically trained ballerina, but she’s a few inches too tall to make this her profession. She has a beautiful, classically trained voice, but she lacks the vocal strength to make singing her livelihood. So she’s settled for being another pretty, talented girl in a chorus line.
But even this job has been recently threatened. Since the death of her mother, she’s been suffering from ill health. We can see, quite obviously, that it’s lack of calories, lack of heat, and lack of adequate clothing that’s doing it to her. But to her manager it’s a great excuse to replace her with the latest model of talented pretty girl. Everyone keeps suggesting Summer take a holiday, get some rest. What none of them are willing to see is that she has no money, no family to fall back on; how can she possibly afford to rest?
Summer’s other recent blow has been the death of her boyfriend, a Scotsman who died while serving in India. Summer knew, realistically, that they could never marry; he has a rather exacting family, and he could never stand up to them and marry a chorus girl. Summer just accepts this as a fact of life.
But then, in her boyfriend’s death, she gets one heck of a surprise: he’s left a will, naming her as his “fiancee,” as well as inheritor of his estate. Summer now owns a lodge in the Scottish countryside!
Summer cannot quite believe this, and yet she has no doubt that she wants to go live there. Everyone else is surprised; surely she’d prefer to sell? But once Summer sees the “little lodge” for herself–an ancient 10-room house filled priceless antiques and artwork–she falls most definitely in love. As she gets to know her new neighbors and her deceased fiance’s family, Summer’s world takes on new dimensions, full of that support network she’s never really had before. And then there’s her neighbor who keeps pushing her to sell him her new home:
‘I’m quite safe. All I want is your house. Dorcas Kinaird, is she not a selfish young woman to reserve that big house for one person?’
‘You mean that most people living there would have a retinue of servants, or friends, to run it for them?’
Very sweetly Summer smiled at her. ‘I love it,’ she agreed. ‘It’s the first place I’ve ever been in that feels like Saturday afternoon the whole time. Now, this place is special too, but in a different way. Yes,’ Summer looked around, almost surprised by her discovery, ‘this house in Sunday–and,’ she nodded to Dorcas, ‘you’re Sunday too.’
‘And what am I, Madam?’
‘You’re Monday. You’re not Sunday like her. Yes, you’re Monday morning and bang-slap back to business.’
‘Deprived of my rightful address, you also imprison me in the most disagreeable day of the week! May I ask where you place my uncle, Torquil Kinaird?’
Summer hesitated. ‘Isn’t that odd–he doesn’t fit into any day of the week. Not even Sunday. I’ve never known that happen before. Yes, it’s certainly peculiar. He must belong to that time he mentioned at the Castle, the hour that belongs neither to night nor day.’
If Summer is the center of the plot, Torquil Kinaird is the center of the novel’s spirit. A medical doctor as well as minister, Dr Kinaird has a lifelong fascination with what he calls “the bespoken mile”: the time and space that exists following a death. Summer is most obviously passing through that bespoken mile, as she tries to make sense of her new life, of this inheritance that death has bestowed. But other characters, including Dr Kinaird himself, are passing through the bespoken mile as well. (We’re reminded that although The Bespoken Mile was published in 1959, the story is set in the mid-1920s, the heyday of spiritualism.) This motif ties in beautifully with Summer’s property, called A Mile Romanach (Gaelic for The Roman Mile), where Summer is afforded total rest and renewal.
The Bespoken Mile is a gorgeous novel, one I really cannot recommend enough. Especially if, like me, you adore D.E. Stevenson, but have found yourself wishing her stories dug a bit deeper. At about 450 pages, this is not a small book, but I loved it so much, it could have been twice the length and I wouldn’t have minded.