A novel about a woman who is heartbroken when the love of her life unexpectedly marries her sister; years later, when they divorce, she’s asked to look after their daughter. 1935.
I feel like I’ve now read enough novels by D. E. Stevenson to have picked out my favorites. The Blue Sapphire remains my favorite—you know, a first love being the strongest, that sort of thing—but The Young Clementina is my new runner-up. (In case you’re curious, my third favorite is currently The House on the Cliff.)
I feel I’ve also read enough DES novels to have formed a pretty solid understanding of the author’s style. Her books are typically described as “cozy,” very British and/or Scottish, and romantic, usually with a touch of mystery thrown in. (Not the “oh my, a corpse!” kind of mystery; something more like “what am I not being told by those I trust?”)
The Young Clementina was only DES’s fifth book, first published in 1935 under the title Divorced From Reality. I think that title right there, when compared with the rest of DES’s oeuvre, is an indication that this book is a bit different from the others. Yes, it’s still cozy, British, romantic, and there’s that bit of light mystery. But there’s something a little less cozy about The Young Clementina, and the mystery plays a prominent role in the plot.
The story opens with our narrator and main character, Charlotte Dean, voicing some vague reflections on her situation. What’s her situation, exactly? We don’t know yet. She’s writing out her story so that she might receive advice from a dear friend. Oh, and this “dear friend” is imaginary; Charlotte spoke to a woman on a bus once, and in her imagination this woman has stayed by her side ever since. (For more stories featuring imagined BFFs, try The Brontes Went to Woolworths or Favours.)
So Charlotte is asking an imaginary friend for advice. I’d call this is a fair indication of just how lonely she is.
For the last twelve years, she’s been in self-imposed exile in London. Charlotte grew up in a country parsonage, the eldest child of a smart, well-educated clergyman. She has a younger sister, Kitty, but the two have always been so temperamentally different—Charlotte inquisitive and serious, Kitty self-centered and in search of fun. Rather than being close to her sister, Charlotte grew up inseparable from Garth, the son of the lord of the manor next door.
Charlotte’s memories of her childhood with Garth are beautiful, sweet, and evidence of perfect harmony. Eventually, as they grow older, the friendship blossoms into love. But then WWI breaks out, and Garth goes off to fight. When he comes home on leave, it looks like an engagement between Charlotte and him is not far off. Charlotte misses Garth, her father’s health declines, and she gets a little depressed…But at least she has something to look forward to.
And then everything goes wrong. When Garth comes home again, he’s changed toward Charlotte. Suddenly his every word carries a barb, and because he knows Charlotte so well he knows exactly how to hurt her most. The “gentle-natured boy” is fully replaced by a bitter, angry young man. Rather than marrying Charlotte, he snubs her and marries her sister, Kitty. Charlotte, heartbroken, slinks off to London and finds a job; it’s too painful to see the love of her life become someone else’s husband.
When I looked at him I saw the same dark sweep of hair from brow to nape, the same fine features, the same mobile mouth, but a different spirit now occupied the body I had loved—a bitter spirit, a disillusioned spirit that believed good of nobody, that seized upon innocent words and twisted them out of shape and threw them in your face.
This is the mystery of the novel: why does Garth turn agains Charlotte? What is the cause of the bitterness that distorts every element of his formerly lovely being? The onset of this new attitude coincides with the war, but somehow neither Charlotte nor us readers are convinced that it has anything to do with his wartime experiences. So what is it, then?
Twelve years after Charlotte commences her London exile, her small, adequate world is disrupted once again by Garth and Kitty. This time, it’s in the form of a messy divorce, and Charlotte is called to testify on her sister’s behalf. After the divorce, Kitty goes off to live with someone else and Garth decides to take another trip to Africa. (In their childhood, he and Charlotte used to make-believe all kinds of travel adventures. Now, as an adult, Garth travels and publishes accounts of his travels. Charlotte, more constricted, works in a travel-book library. See, now why aren’t these two together?!)
Kitty and Garth also have an eleven-year-old daughter, Clementina. So while they’re both fleeing from the disaster of their marriage, Clementina needs someone to look after her. Reluctantly, Charlotte is persuaded to step in. She barely knows her niece. Clementina, moreover, is a quiet, withdrawn child, who’s been mildly traumatized by witnessing her parents’ awful relationship.
Now Charlotte has two mysteries to contend with: how to connect with Clementina, and why does Garth hate the world?
Eventually, both of these mysteries are solved. Along the way, Charlotte recovers from the misery of her urban exile, learns how to run a large household, and makes friends with the neighbors. Here’s a funny bit that happens when she’s out shopping with her newfound friend and neighbor:
A fat, stolid young man came forward to serve us. “A drinking trough for a dog. Yes, Moddam. Would you prefer a plain trough or one with ‘DOG’ written on it?”
Paula looked at him gravely. “It doesn’t really matter,” she replied. “My dogs can’t read and my husband never drinks water.”
In all, it’s a captivating story. DES’s writing is at its strongest here: eloquent, poetic, and true-to-life. (Except she misuses commas all throughout, with does irk me—this habit must have been amended later in her career.) The Young Clementina reminds me strongly of Random Harvest: similar time period, setting, tone, an ongoing sense of mystery, and the memory/reflection theme. The Young Clementina also feels like more “serious” fiction than the other DES novels I’ve read.
This is not to say that it’s a depressing book, or that DES’s other novels are in any way lesser fiction. But if you think you know the cozy Brit-lit genre, and, like me, you think you know what to expect from DES, try The Young Clementina. It might make you think again.