(picture shamelessly stolen from Harriet Divine)
As I mentioned the other day I am now reviewing things completely out of order – which I generally hate doing – it seems I dislike the chaotic feeling of doing this. I read The Lark – while away at the seaside – unfortunately I was ill – so had quite a bit of reading time.
Like many other readers of Simon’s blog I was charmed by the sound of this adult novel from E Nesbit when he reviewed it so glowingly in January. The cheapest and easiest way to obtain it these days is in an e-book collection of E Nesbit works. This collection is a fairly wondrous thing in itself – if you’re happy reading e-books – as it contains E Nesbit’s novels for children her adult novels and short stories (for less than £2.00). I shall have to read more of these in the future – it is a frankly quite enormous collection, it might take some time.
The Lark is the story of two young women making their precarious way in the world having just left school and come into a small-ish legacy. The two don’t feel their inheritance is quite enough to live on comfortably – so look around for ways to increase their income.
As the novel opens we meet cousins and schoolgirls Jane and Lucilla with their friend Emmeline (ever after not seen again). The girls are in a library surrounded by books. Jane has decided to conjure a spell which will enable her to see her future husband. There is some discussion about whether this is a good/realistic plan – and Jane skips off to the woods to carry out her spell – it’s just a lark!
“Life is a lark — all the parts of it, I mean, that are generally treated seriously: money, and worries about money, and not being sure what’s going to happen. Looked at rightly, all that’s an adventure, a lark. As long as you have enough to eat and to wear and a roof to sleep under, the whole thing’s a lark. Life is a lark for us, and we must treat it as such.”
Meanwhile John Rochester; (yes Rochester and Jane – no doubt tongue-in-cheek) following a frustrating encounter with his rather managing mother – about whom he should marry – heads off through the woods. You can rather guess the rest.
The second chapter moves the story forward about four years, the girls are still at school although about to leave – having stayed there safely, long enough for the war in Europe to finish, they are both now around eighteen or nineteen. The Great War has just ended, Jane’s father has died, and a Great Aunt had left Jane a nice amount of money – which has scandalously been mismanaged by her trustee. Finally their patron and trustee writes, allowing them to leave their Devonshire school. His instructions direct them to a tiny cottage somewhere just outside of London. The girls arrive at Hope Cottage, hungry not knowing what to expect.
“There were two little sitting-rooms, one on each side of the front door. The first was furnished primly in Middle-Victorian walnut and faded satin. It had a piano with a fluted yellow silk front, and glass lustres to the mantelpiece. A vase of roses stood on a table in the window. “Nothing to eat here!” said Lucilla bitterly. But Jane had opened the door of the other room. “Oh, Lucy!” she called. “Come here!” The second room was a little dining-room, with mahogany chiffonier and maple-framed engravings of the Monarch of the Glen, the Maid of Saragossa, and Bolton Abbey in the olden time. In the middle of the room stood a table — almost it seemed to beckon, with its white cloth, its gleams of silver and glass. “Cold chicken!” said Lucilla. “Salad — raspberries — tea-things — milk — bread, butter, jam — everything! Oh, and cream!”
Another letter from their trustee Mr Panton duly arrives which informs them of them that the cottage is now the property of Lucilla – he encloses the title deeds – and that £500 has been paid into Jane’s bank account. That he regretfully informs them is all that is left – all they shall see of their inheritance – that he has been unfortunate in speculation. He advises them that they use the £500 to set themselves up in some kind of business.
Using the flowers from their own garden Jane and Lucilla begin selling flowers, quite successfully – it seems as almost everyone who walks past their cottage is suddenly in need of flowers. It quickly becomes apparent their flowers won’t last long. As so often in these lovely old stories – everything falls neatly into place. Meeting with James Rochester (the uncle of the aforementioned John), owner of a lovely large property, about to go abroad – they come to an agreement about selling his flowers from his garden room. Their business takes off – and naturally John turns up again. John arranges for his two new friends to rent the whole of his uncle’s house allowing them to combine their flower business with that of taking in paying guests (pigs as the girls insist on calling them). John Rochester is obviously quite smitten, and moves into a cottage on his uncle’s property so that he can help the girls in their ventures. The advent of the paying guests is deliciously funny – more paying guests and fewer flowers would have suited me I think. Some guests grotesquely horrid – others rather criminal – and there’s Miss Antrobus – the woman John Rochester’s mother wants him to marry.
There is a host of wonderful characters, from the impoverished Mr Dix – who the girls mistake for an ex-offender, flirty Gladys their maid, and the frequently outraged Mrs Doveton, John Rochester’s difficult mother and the wonderfully drawn various PGs.
“THAT girl,” said Mrs. Doveton, “she’s an epidemic.”
“?” said Jane and Lucilla.
“An epidemic, miss — she’s catching, like measles and whooping-cough. She catches every man she comes near, and the more the merrier, so she thinks.” Mrs. Doveton breathed heavily. “Sit down and tell us all about it,” Lucilla said comfortably, and a green velvet armchair creaked to Mrs. Doveton’s acceptance of the invitation.
Jane and Lucilla are a breath of fresh air – exuberant, positive ever cheerful, their naivety belie their resourcefulness and determination. They view almost everything in life as a lark – and face all their trials with youthful optimism which is quite infectious. I liked the way that what might or might not happen with Jane and John Rochester – was never completely a foregone conclusion – at times Nesbit seems to almost dismiss him from the main narrative as if he has served his purpose in providing an uncle with a large property standing idle. E Nesbit doesn’t neatly partner everyone up – in that one for her, one for her, one for her manner that one does sometimes come across – but allows some women to remain shockingly unspoken for at the conclusion (hooray!).
This really was a delightful read – perfect holiday reading I suppose. A big thank-you to Simon and Harriet for pointing me in the direction of The Lark – I am trying not to covet Simon’s lovely old edition of it.