A novel about a young woman who is all set to marry the man her family wishes her to marry, when a chance encounter helps nudge her toward a more independently-minded lifestyle. 1963.
Virtually the only flaw with D. E. Stevenson is that her cousin Robert Louis Stevenson is much better known today than she is. As a result, try looking for her books in any mainstream bookstore, and you’ll find no “D. E.”s for all the “Robert Louis”s.
But there’s a big difference between these blood relatives. For one, D. E. Stevenson was born two years prior to Robert Louis Stevenson’s death, so her 40-odd novels were published more than a generation later than his.
Still, while reading this book, whenever “catching a flight” (hint: not of fancy, but of airplane) or other such distinctly 1960-ish things were mentioned, I did a double take. It’s D.E.S.’s style that is so misleading: its fluidity, grace, and simple depth feels more suited to Edwardian literature than 1960s London.
This is not a book that slowly catches your attention. In the opening pages, an unknown young man sits down on a park bench next to Julia, who is waiting for her fiance to meet her. The young man is instantly considerate and charming, winning our hearts, if not necessarily Julia’s. More importantly, though, he has fallen madly for her, and in his pursuit of her love he introduces another main “character”: a blue sapphire he’s brought back from South Africa.
When Stephen, the unknown young man, pays Julia a call, that’s when we really see how undesirable Julia’s home life is. There’s no one who’s downright cruel—that wouldn’t be very D.E.S.—but there is Julia’s stepmother, who clearly would like to be freed of this burden of a grown stepdaughter. The woman is also a bit “fast”: she flirts with Stephen in a way that is alarming to everyone, except perhaps Julia, who is unfortunately used to her stepmother’s coquettish ways.
Unlike in fairy tales, in this story there is no beneficent (or deceased) father to turn the daughter into the victim of the stepmother. Julia’s father is serious, withdrawn, and disappointed at having had a girl instead of a boy. What’s worse is that Julia is perfectly aware of this.
At about this point in reading The Blue Sapphire, I glanced at the back cover, where praise of another D.E.S. novel stated:
As always in D. E. Stevenson’s books, the people are the sort one knows or would like to know, the events normal and convincing.
This description absolutely fit my experience of The Blue Sapphire. What I found more interesting, though, was that all the characters Julia knew prior to the story’s action starting were in fact the types of people I know, but wish I didn’t have to know. (Particularly her fiance, who had a habit of talking right over Julia, especially when she needed to communicate something important.)
The “new” people in her life were quite the opposite. They were so enchanting, in fact, that I would have been quite happy for the story to continue indefinitely. So what if nothing else happened in their lives? I wouldn’t have cared. I would’ve been quite happy just witnessing them being their lovely, endearing selves.
Still, these lovely characters are not one-dimensional. When Julia moves into a boarding house, her landlady is charming, an instant friend, but she’s also nosy. We can almost feel her reading Julia’s letters over her shoulder. When Julia gets a job in a hat shop, her employer mentors and adores her, but is blind to the disservice she is doing to Julia by favoring her over the other shop assistants. Even Julia’s uncle, who becomes the father she wishes she had, has his flaws. And, because this is a humorous novel, everyone has their quirks, too! The Scottish characters, for instance, would switch to speaking the heaviest brogue possible when an English visitor was rude to them. Revenge through discomfort! Loved it.
In all, I enjoyed the message of The Blue Sapphire: when a young woman ventures out into the world on her own, let’s have her met only the best, well-intentioned sorts of people. I like what that says about the world.
My only complaint was that Julia both fainted and fell into a fit of hysterics (which required a sedative to calm her down). It seemed like a surprisingly feeble trait in an otherwise fairly strong character. Maybe fainting has just fallen out of fashion these days. (“Fallen”…Haha, get it?)
Reminded me of:
- Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), except in a different genre
- Victoria Holt (Mistress of Mellyn), for her female protagonists
- Anne Bronte (Agnes Grey; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall); Charlotte Bronte (the main character in this book is even reading Villette)