This was my first Elizabeth Cadell experience, but it’s definitely not going to be my last. From this first nibble, her style and subject matter remind me strongly of several of her contemporaries, who also happen to be among my all-time favorite authors: D.E. Stevenson, Susan Ertz, and Margery Sharp, to name a few. Like these other authors, Cadell’s storytelling has a timeless element, so it feels quaint but never “dated.”
The Corner Shop centers around Mrs. Lucille Abbey—who’s not actually married, but divorced, and the “Mrs.” prefix, though technically attached to her maiden name, lends her a certain respectability. Lucille runs a secretarial agency, and she prides herself in always being able to provide the perfect secretary for a job. Except recently, she’s sent three highly-qualified women to work for this professor out in the countryside, and each of the secretaries has mysteriously returned within the day. The professor, they plainly declare, is impossible to work with. So Lucille goes out to see the professor herself and put and end to all this.
Though still in her twenties, Lucille behaves like a maiden aunt on the train, poking her fellow passengers out of the way with her handbag in order to obtain the exact seat she wants. Cadell informs us, though, that Lucille is still quite “eligible”:
She was aware that she was slim, blonde and beautiful—but her looks, though they might be alluring, were also misleading and raised hopes which she was constantly constrained to crush. She had a clear brain, sound common sense and a capacity for hard work; why these sober attributes had been encased in so fancy a package she had never been able to understand; she knew only that she looked far warmer than she felt.
Now, who hasn’t grown tired of their heroines being either beautiful and charming, or plain and charming? It was only the second page, but I was smitten.
Lucille arrives at the professor’s house very, very displeased. Not only has she traveled so far out of London, and waited in far-out locales for buses that never came, but now she finds the professor’s house is at the top of an incredibly steep hill, and she has to walk, and it’s hot, and she’s had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast, and the rough terrain has broken the heel off her shoe.
When she finally makes it to the top, the professor barely even takes notice of her, let alone acknowledges the many causes of her displeasure. Lucille sees to that, though; immediately, she begins bossing him around. All the while she endeavors to explain that no, she is not another secretary. She explains her reasons for coming. The professor doesn’t really care. He tells her he’s decided he can do the work himself (cataloguing the items in his late mother’s household), so she may as well go away. He doesn’t even deign to remember Mrs. Abbey’s name…or maybe he’s just trying to get under her skin.
In any case, he certainly has gotten under her skin. When she does make her way back to London, it’s only to pack a bag. Lucille informs her aunt, a shopkeeper in Paris, that she won’t be able to come and look after the shop while the aunt goes on holiday. Not yet, anyway. Lucille also informs her fiance, a pompous sort of fellow whom it would be convenient to marry (much like the fiance in The Blue Sapphire), that he’ll likewise have to postpone his trip to Paris.
So, in part to avoid her impending nuptials, Lucille returns to the professor and his house on the hill. While acting as his secretary, Lucille in turn does her best to get under his skin. I swear, the scenes between these two stubborn, outspoken individuals is pure rom-com gold. And yet, the professor is not at all a romantic figure—he’s described as “a man with a long pointed nose who washed his own socks every night and hung them on the window sill to dry.” (!!) Moreover, he eats the same thing every day (cold chicken, salad, and boiled potatoes), and his manners are really quite awful.
Up on the hill, Lucille also meets a handsome, wealthy owner of a French art gallery, who’s pestering the professor about some paintings among his late mother’s possessions. These mysterious paintings then become the focus of the novel’s action, first at the house on the hill and later in Paris, where Lucille eventually goes to look after her aunt’s shop. In Paris the novel starts to read more as a play, with all the characters rushing around and coming to involve Lucille in their drama. Lucille remains strongly the center of it all, and boy am I glad she does. She’s a great character, one whose complexities are only glimpsed in this short novel. There’s this section, for instance, where she’s riding in a taxi with her fiance and wondering if she really wants to marry him:
She would not lead a life of her own; she would lead his life. Already she could—if she let herself go—be drawn along, carried along, borne on the fast-moving stream. It was like religion, she thought. Once you could sweep aside your doubts, once you could give yourself up, you had no further worry; the whole thing was taken care of. The whole thing went along, and you went with it…All she had to do was marry him and slip into his groove and the machinery would go on running smoothly.
In short, this is an eloquent, amusing little gem of a book. My only wish was that it had been longer. More, please, more!