Published in 1934, this novel contains all the hallmarks of a quintessential 'cosy' read. The stereotypical ingredients are all there...a country house, spinsters, privileged adult children, a village, hired help, and the dreaded neuralgia. Class distinction is also present as an inappropriate coupling drives one of the storylines. While reading about Stella Gibbons after finishing this book, it turns out that Bassett is a veiled telling of two painful episodes in Gibbons' personal life. Finding this out after the fact has made the tearful episodes of one character all the more poignant.
Miss Hilda Baker has worked in London as a pattern-cutter for twenty-one years and is pondering how to shape her future. She has inherited a bit of money from a deceased relative - coupled with her ability to save she has accrued £380 and is looking for an investment. Conveniently, a letter catches her eye in a copy of Town and Country by a woman who is looking for someone interested in sharing the expense of running a boarding house.
Miss Eleanor Padsoe lives in her ancestral home near Reading University. It's a modest house, named The Tower, but dwindling finances have led to its looking a bit worse for wear. Circumstance leads Miss Baker to the decision that she should merge interests with Miss Padsoe, who turns out to be as meek as they come. Her two servants, a mother and daughter, have been fleecing their employer out of money and food to such an extent that they eventually try to turf Miss Padsoe from her own home.. Being a Londoner, Miss Baker plots the exit of these two conniving swindlers in a farcical scene that made me cheer. From this day forward the two women decide to wade into a world they are totally unprepared for...
'For Miss Baker could not cook, nor could Miss Padsoe. They could, it is true, each boil an egg and fry chops (although Miss Padsoe's usually got burnt) but they did not know how to turn out a dish of creamy, well-seasoned mashed potatoes or a fruit tart, or even a nourishing stew. Miss Baker had lived for nearly thirty years on meals in restaurants or meals cooked at home on two gas rings, and Miss Padsoe being an Edwardian achievement, rather than a late Victorian one, did not think it necessary for a lady to know how to cook.'
Another storyline features the wealthy Shelling family. The 'c' has been removed from their surname's German spelling. Most of the time spent at Baines House involves Bell (short for Isabella) and her 'moodily beautiful' brother, George, in their daily flouncing about as they ponder a world outside the bubble of lawn tennis, food, and parties. George works in a managerial capacity at the family-owned factory but you would barely notice. Add a very pretty servant with strong political views from a free-thinking family (and a pinch of hormones) and voilà...tears.
On the surface this is a 'gentle' read, but the emotions are so genuine and sincere that I doubt many readers would be left unmoved by several of the characters. The young women are frustrated by the expectations of their family and tradition. The burden of responsibility and duty also weighs heavily on the young men. Someone is bound to be disappointed, while others find peace in situations they never thought possible.
Something for consideration...this book does contain a few spots of racism that readers may find offensive. Other than those moments that made me snort with incredulity, this book exceeded my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A while ago, this title came up in discussion on a couple of blogs; some thought that it started off as a very good read but lost some of its shine towards the end. I disagree!
'Tot' (Sister of painter Arthur Roy Mitchell) by Harvey Dunn