Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Young Clementina by D. E. Stevenson

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The Young Clementina is a beautifully written, classic story about the rightness of old-fashioned values. It was first published in 1938 and takes place from the 1910s to the early 1930s, so those values weren't so old-fashioned then. The main narrator is Charlotte Dean, a hearty English rose who loves to ride and hike about in nature. Her minister father has homeschooled her and tutored the young squire of the neighborhood manor. Charlotte and her playmate, Garth, are two halves of a coin and grow up the best of friends. They are falling in love when WWI begins and Garth leaves their idyllic village. Their implicit understanding to wait for each other goes awry when Garth returns bitter, angry, and cruel. He promptly marries Charlotte's sister and Charlotte moves to London to eke out a living as a bookstore manager. A number of unfortunate events occur that lands Charlotte in charge of the manor and her niece, the titular Clementina.

Charlotte is the quintessential stalwart British woman. She silently puts aside her pain and strives daily to do her duty. Her moments of pain and anger are bleakly solitary and comfortless. She achieves a kind of equilibrium with her life in London when the past intrudes. When Garth twists the knife, asking her to be temporary mistress of the home that should have been hers and to raise the child that could have been hers, it reopens old wounds. But Charlotte agrees, her heart belongs in the country and her niece needs a mother figure. During her tenure, Charlotte manages to right the wrongs that have haunted the home and family, from their social outcast status to recalcitrant servants to the traumatized Clem. Charlotte goes from timid spinster to doyenne of the manor. Her confidence and revitalization are wonderfully heartwarming to witness.

The story is told in multiple parts, narrated by Charlotte, who is writing to a friend she calls Clara. Clara doesn't exist and this strange set up was disconcerting for the first few chapters. Charlotte mostly writes the story as a history, which is our info dump, and as a way for her to trace the sources of the present day events (Garth's proposition) so she can decide whether to accept. I could recognize that the writing was superior in a non-modern way, but was bored to tears. However, as the history part passed and the pivotal plot got going, the book was impossible put down even as its predictability deeply irritated. The trope of the excruciatingly dutiful older (dark-haired) sister and the pretty flighty social-climbing younger (blonde) sister? Check. A suddenly cold suitor turning to the first woman in sight, the sister of the former love to really make a point? Check! The shallow wife being a horrible match for the principled, scholarly husband? CHECK. There are more, but they would be spoilers. The story is very well-constructed, well-told, and true to feeling. Charlotte's sufferings are heart-wrenching and her triumphs are equally sweet. I wouldn't say she is a compelling or exotic character, but if honor and truthfulness, even in the face of sacrifice, mean something to you, she is eminently captivating.

As as I mentioned, The Young Clementina is originally from the 1930s. I didn't find this out until I read the author's bio at the end and this knowledge put all my dislikes into context. The very formal language, long predictable scenarios, and hackneyed tropes probably weren't so back then, and for all we know, D.E. Stevenson may have introduced them to a scandalized readership. I like to think so and hope she enjoyed creating a powerfully fun story.

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