I didn’t realize until I was halfway done with this book that the author also wrote 101 Dalmatians, which I read as a child. It was mentioned in The Billfold, a blog about personal finance, which has a recurring spot where they discuss the finance of children’s literature. And finance is at the center of this story.
Cassandra, Rose, and Thomas are the three children of Montmain, a one-hit-wonder of a writer who had a fairly well regarded novel some years earlier and hasn’t written a single thing since. They have a stepmother, Topaz, who on one hand is a blowsy bohemian with striking beauty and peculiar ideas and on the other hand is an even better mother to the children than their own mother, who died before the book’s story began. There’s also Stephen, whose mother was a housekeeper hired by the family, and who stays on as a kind of unpaid servant, partially out of gratitude for them taking in an orphan boy and partly because he’s in love with Cassandra. Also–and this is fairly important–they live in a ruined castle.
The family is desperately poor, but it’s a kind of genteel romantic poor. First of all, there’s Montmain’s fading fame. Secondly, they live in a castle. Thirdly, unlike Stephen, they are of the class of people who hire servants rather than the class of people who become servants. Because Stephen works tirelessly to help the family, and even donates his income when he gets hired at the nearby farm, they’re not really in danger of starving, though they’re all pretty hungry most of the time. At one point, they have a family meeting to figure out where they could get some money from. Topaz could go back to being an artist’s model, except that she’d have to live in London and it’s expensive to live there. Cassandra is only seventeen, Thomas is still in school. Rose offers to prostitute herself, but Topaz says if she’s going to sell herself, she should do it properly and become a rich man’s wife. Rose is willing to do this, but there aren’t any eligible bachelors around.
And then suddenly there are. Simon and Neil Cotton, come over from America to see the land that has been entailed upon Simon. Simon, the heir, is in love with everything England. Because he is the heir, it’s he that Rose sets her cap for, except everyone is “frightened” by the fact that he has a beard. The big fuss they make over his beard is one of the details that most firmly pulled me back into the 20th century. Neil is the one everyone likes, except that he doesn’t intend to stay in England. He’s quite American, and plans to go back to the California desert and start a ranch.
So then it’s a courtship tale, with Rose trying to land her eligible bachelor with the aid of Topaz (who understands these things) and the hindrance of extremely limited funds. And even Montmain and Stephen get involved with the Cottons, Montmain because Neil and Simon’s mother is a bright and attractive woman who is fascinated by Montmain’s “genius” and Stephen because one of the Cotton’s relatives is a photographer who wants to capture Stephen’s masculine beauty by posing him in togas. Cassandra, meanwhile, writes everything down in her journals.
The Cottons improve the lives of the family almost immediately. They invite them to dinner. They give them hams. They buy the furs that the girls inherited from Millicent, giving them a much-needed cash influx. They bring Montmain out of his shell. They give Stephen a chance at a career in film. They even introduce the possibility of Topaz being a model again. Heloise and Abelard, the dog and cat, are even eating better. Suddenly there’s food on the table and new clothes and the hope of better things. And Rose says she has successfully fallen in love with Simon … or has she?
So now let me ruin a perfectly good YA novel by giving it my angry modern feminist spin on it. First of all, I credit this book with putting a bald face on Rose’s proposal to fall in love with a rich man as a sacrifice she is making for the good of her family. Topaz works hard, but her work is invisible. Stephen is basically keeping the family alive through his work, but he is hardly credited since he’s sort of a servant (though the money flows the other way.)
Montmain, whose duty it is to provide for his family, is a useless fuck. I despised him. Not only is he not keeping his children properly fed, but he is too oblivious to notice that they are just one step above starving. He comes in and asks for “a biscuit” as if that were the smallest thing he could ask for, but never stops to wonder where the money will come from to provide biscuits, since he’s not doing it. He invites people over for dinner even though they have no dinner nor furniture to sit at. When Topaz dresses down to make Rose look better, instead of praising her ingenuity, he gets furious because not having a hot wife makes him look bad. If he were any more selfish and self-absorbed he’d collapse in on himself and suck the earth into a gravity well. The only thing he can do is write, and he won’t even do that until nearly the end of the book, at which point he writes something which is either bizarre and pointless drivel or a brilliant enigma, depending on how much you bought into his identity as a genius. He was like that guy you find at every writer’s group who goes on and on about how brilliant he is, but never seems to write anything and if he does it’s pure crap which he tells you you’re just not bright enough to understand because he’s a genius and you’re just a girl who writes as a hobby. I wish I could say I only knew one of these men, but they are as common as garden slugs. So, Montmain didn’t hold any romantic appeal for me. I didn’t see him as a tortured genius but as a feckless ne’er do well, the sort of man who sits on a couch and smokes pot all day while yelling at his hardworking wife to get off his case when she asks when he’s going to get a job. Except the family in this book is too much in awe of him (due to his position and gender) that they hardly even dare to speak to him. They way they finally entice him to start writing again is reckless, but also apt and funny.
The voice of the protagonist alone makes this worth reading. She’s charming and the way she tries hard to figure out how to describe what’s happening in her life and how she feels about it is familiar to me as both a woman who used to be 17 and a writer. It’s a cute book for anyone who likes YA or early 20th century fiction.