The Rose-Garden Husband – Margaret Widdemer

The Rose-Garden Husband ALBA novel about a young librarian who, dreaming one day of a husband and a rose garden, soon finds herself with both in store–but reality is always more complicated than the dream. 1915.

The Rose-Garden Husband is a brief, antiquated little story, but it’s a charmer nonetheless. I read it a while back, and every time I see it in my library, I’m reminded that it really does deserve a review. Today is the day!

Our heroine, the “Liberry Teacher” aka Phyllis Braithwaite, is a young woman who finds herself stifled by her life. She works in a city library, has no family of her own, and rents in a boardinghouse with elderly people who also find themselves alone. It’s a fine life for one with more years behind them, perhaps, but it’s tantamount to a death sentence for a young woman who has yet to really live.

This long, gloomy Saturday shift, full of snot-nosed children (my choice of words) and young women with prettier frocks than her own, Phyllis takes to dreaming of a different life. At the center of this dream: a rose garden, and a man who would be so kind as to give her the rose garden, then leave her to enjoy it.

It isn’t a good thing, if you want to be contented with your lot, to think of rose-gardens in a stuffy city library o’ Saturdays; especially when you were brought up rose-gardens were one of the common necessities of life; and more especially when you are tired almost to the crying-point, and have all the week’s big sisters back of it dragging on you, and all its little sisters to come worrying at you, and–time not up till six.

But Fate intervenes this Saturday, sending it’s unlikely Messenger: a gray-haired, whiskered library patron whom Phyllis has come to be friendly with. Twice, Phyllis has been invited to his and his wife’s house for supper, and these events formed the highlight of her season. She sees Mr. and Mrs. De Guenther as her uncle and aunt of choice (especially as she has none).

Mr. De Guenther has clearly come with the purpose of seeing her, but he’s not being forthcoming with the reason. Finally, he invites Phyllis to supper, with the hint that he and his wife have schemed up a very different–but hopefully agreeable–line of work for their friend Phyllis.

Phyllis is all anticipation. Is it more work as a librarian? Or (she jokes) perhaps for the Secret Service? At the De Guenther house the next night, she waits impatiently for them to elaborate on their plans. At last, she starts to hear the story…

There’s a mother and son duo, close friends of the De Guenthers’. The son, a strapping, intelligent college graduate, had a bright life ahead. One day he went for a drive with his fiancee, and they were in a bad wreck; the fiancee was killed, and Allan was crippled. Mr De Guenther elaborates:

And, which is sadder, his state of mind and body has become steadily worse. He can scarely move at all now, and his mental attitude can only be described as painfully morbid–yes, I may say very painfully morbid. Sometimes he does not speak at all for days together, even to his mother, or his attendant.

The Rose-Garden HusbandAlan’s mother has been devoted to him in his invalid state, but now she has become an invalid herself. In those charmingly vague medical explanations of the time (“broken spirit,” that sort of stuff), we learn that his mother has only a few months left to life. As she declines, she worries all the more about what will be come of Alan. They have no extended family. There are always nurses and attendants–but these people can all abandon Alan, and then what would become of him?

So here is the plan the old ladies have hatched: they must find Alan a wife. Someone who is bound by law and moral obligation to stay by his side and look after him. And they’ve decided Phyllis Braithwaite, with her “kind heart and sense of honor,” is the logical candidate!

After some hand-wringing, Phyllis decides there might be something to this idea. She could have that much-desired independence, free from working life–and she could have a rose garden! So she agrees to meet her groom-to-be (whom, possibly, no one has consulted regarding this marriage plan). When she meets him, we worry that Alan might not be our gallant hero.

He looked like a young Crusader on a tomb. That was Phyllis’s first impression of Alan Harrington. He talked and acted, if a moveless man can be said to act, like a bored, spoiled small boy. That was her second.

Alan is terribly good looking, but his situation has made him a tragic figure. He’s not really interested in anything in life–including Phyllis, his soon-to-be fake wife. But his disinterest carries a wounding barb; undeniably, he’s a bored and spoiled invalid. His mother is in a perpetual state of mourning for her beloved son, cut down in his prime. She even goes into his room just to weep over him…like he actually is dead!

Phyllis has her work cut out for her. It seem that her experience with all of those snot-nosed brats at the library will prove useful training after all. This is a romance from 1915, so the formula is pretty easy to follow. It’s still undeniably charming, watching how this cheerful young woman strives to make an invalid interested in life again.

The Rose-Garden Husband was Widdemer’s earliest published work, but it began a career that lasted through the late 1960s and included 40 published novels for adults, a dozen children’s novels, another dozen poetry collections, and several memoirs. The Rose Garden Husband shows the eagerness of the author’s early work (and as a graduate of library sciences, there may be some autobiography here), but it’s still nicely done. Widdemer’s pacing carries the story along at a swift clip, and we get the themes at play, without being bludgeoned to death by them…as, unfortunately, I feel is often the case with sentimental stories from this period.

The Rose-Garden Husband also fits nicely with other novels of this time. If you’re interested in this era of fiction, here are a few you might also enjoy.

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