This is a very hard book for me to review, there have already been several excellent reviews of it out there in book blog land – and knowing I can’t equal those reviews I wonder if I can do this lovely novel justice.
Guard your daughters is a novel about five sisters and an unconventional slightly dysfunctional family at a time just after the Second World War. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Certainly there is something familiar about this novel, it feels like something one has read before or should have read before, it is nostalgic somehow and familiar, yet at the same time is something of a new discovery.
This little known 1950’s novel has been enjoying something a mini renaissance recently thanks to the marvellous Stuckinabook. Some months ago Simon posted a wonderful review of this book on his blog. At the time there were several very cheap editions of the book available on Amazon marketplace, and elsewhere – it seemed everyone dived on to the internet to order their copy. I was one of them, only I came to the party a couple of days too late – and while the site was showing the book as available it clearly wasn’t – and several tries, emails and refunds later, I had to content myself with not having a copy of Guard your Daughters. I tried a few times to find copies – but they were either unavailable or priced rather highly for a small 1950’s hardback. Then to my joy a fellow member on Libraything’s virago group offered to send me her copy as she had read it. It is only due to the month of re-reading in January that I have just got around to reading it. It was certainly worth the wait.
Of course the price of second hand copies of this book has now risen, I checked today and £9.78 is the cheapest I could find, with copies being sold on ebay for £11 and £12. All of which goes to prove just how influential book bloggers can be. This is a book which I too think deserves to be read and talked about, and would look very fetching in a new dove grey jacket.
The Harvey sisters are unconventional, unschooled and oddly named they have been brought up at quite some distance from the rest of the world. Living with their famous detective writer father, and their fragile mother, they have been one another’s friends – with hardly any experience of people outside their family. Pandora the eldest has recently married and moved away to London – and this change seems to highlight for the sisters the peculiarity of their lives. Our narrator is Morgan, the nineteen year old middle sister, a pianist with a keen imagination. The eldest of the sisters still at home, and next in age to Pandora, is Thisbe, a beautiful and sharply tongued poet. A year younger than Morgan, is eighteen year old Cressida, sensible and domesticated, she seems most keenly aware of the oddities in the Harvey’s existence. The youngest sister is fifteen year old Teresa, romantic and dreamy she is very much the baby of the family.
Coming back to visit her family after her marriage, Pandora fears for her sisters – fears they won’t be able to marry or have lives of their own. Her removal from the family has increased her unease of the way the sisters have been brought up.
“I sighed. I knew where this was heading. Pandora had decided in her own gentle and inexorable way that poor Teresa ought to be at school. It was shame, I thought. I said: “Dearest, being married is making you very conventional. You never used to worry about our education.”
“I didn’t realise quite what anachronisms we all were. It’s so extraordinary that you all submit to this – this captivity.”
“But we’re all frightfully happy,” I said. “I can’t see that it matters. Have you talked to Thisbe like this?”
“Yes last night. She came back into my bedroom. She agrees.”
With their parents existing very much in the background, the five sisters have made their own entertainment and learnt to look after themselves and one another really very well. Their father divides his time between his writing and his wife, who he dances attendance upon constantly ensuring she is not upset. This fragile absent mother is a strange character, at first she appears merely cosseted and spoilt, her husband and daughters adoring her without question. The sisters have been sheltered from the world to a ridiculous degree, but when two seemingly eligible young men come into the sisters lives; their lack of social experience becomes obvious. However there are darker undercurrents to this unconventional household. Throughout this novel, woven into the humorous and charming story of the relationship between five sisters – there is a definite shadow. For me there was always something unexplained, remaining unspoken till the end. This element is brilliantly done, well plotted it adds something quite special to what could have been a fairly ordinary story. Yet the story is not ordinary, it’s heart-warming, funny and memorable, and the final twist utterly brilliant.
Guard Your Daughters is in many ways very like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – a book which I have read twice, loved, and which continues to enjoy huge popularity. Diana Tutton’s first novel was published just a few years after I Capture the Castle, and in it, she appears to refer to the earlier novel in a scene about dressing for a cocktail party at the house of the local gentry. I think that Guard your Daughters is every bit as good as I capture the Castle and it is very surprising to me that it remains out of print. It is understandable that there are comparisons made between the two novels, Guard your Daughters has a similar feel to I Capture the Castle, it is a heart-warming nostalgic type novel. It is certainly the type of novel I can imagine re-reading, wanting to meet those sisters again and again. I do think, however, that Guard your Daughters has something more serious to say than I Capture the Castle. Tutton understands her characters beautifully; the gradual unravelling of the past and the motivations and consequences of the Harvey parents is possibly what sets it apart. I am so very glad I have had a chance to read this novel, and must thank Kerry from librarything again, for sending it to me.