41. Guard Your Daughters (1953)
What a heavenly book! What a glorious find! It has gone into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. There was never any question that it wouldn’t.
Occasionally I started a book and, after a page or two, know that I will hate it *cough* Mary Webb *cough – less frequently, it takes only the first page to tell me that a book is astonishingly brilliant (step forward Patrick Hamilton.) Rarest of all is the book where, before the end of the second page, I know I will read and re-read it for many years to come. We all recognise the difference between a book we admire and a book we love. Often these overlap, but there are very few novels which feel like loved ones, so deeply are we attached to them. Guard Your Daughters is on that list for me, now.
First off, I have to acknowledge how similar it is to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I mentioned that the other day, but I don’t think I can really write a review without acknowledging it again. Guard Your Daughters was published five years after I Capture the Castle, and I think Tutton must have been influenced by it – or perhaps there was something in the zeitgeist? (Disclaimer: I’m going to make two big assumptions – that you’ve read I Capture the Castle, and that you love it. I won’t give away any significant spoilers, but my references to Dodie Smith’s novel might not make complete sense if you’ve not read it…. ok, disclaimer over!)
Here are some of the similarities: The narrator is a young girl (Morgan Harvey is 19, to Cassandra’s 17) who lives with her eccentric family in the middle of rural nowhere. Her father is a writer (although Morgan’s father is a successful and prolific detective novelist, not an avant-garde sufferer from writer’s block) and there are posher folk living nearby. Tutton even seems to make reference to Rose’s disastrous attempts to dress up for her neighbours, when Morgan and her sisters are preparing to visit theirs:
Luckily, if you bother to read a few illustrated papers you can always find out what to wear when, so that we didn’t make any crashing faux pas, such as wearing long dresses or flowers in our hair.
The most significant similarity is the feel of the novel. Just as I Capture the Castle has a warm, nostalgic feel to it (don’t ask me how), so Guard Your Daughters feels like a novel one read repeatedly throughout childhood, even though I hadn’t read a word of it before this week. Without being like those mawkish Edwardian children’s books where everyone Learns A Lesson, Tutton has created a wonderful family of people who love one another and, somehow, make the reader feel included. ‘About fifty years out of date’, as one sister cheerfully confesses, and ‘living in a completely unreal world’ as another admits, but this isn’t a realist novel. This is a novel which glories in its own delightful eccentricity – but not without serious undercurrents.
Right, the family. While Cassandra was blessed only with one sister and one brother, Morgan has four sisters. Dreamy, shy Teresa is the youngest (at 15) – she warmed my heart by her forthright hatred of sports. Next is Cressida, the only one of the unmarried sisters who craves a normal family environment – she rather blended into the background, but that turns out to be important. Morgan is the middle sister. One year older than her, Thisbe is dry, sardonic and loves to make visitors feel awkward – the only thing she takes seriously is her poetry. Oldest is Pandora, recently married and thus absent from the home. When she visits, her perspective on life has changed…
“The thing is–” said Pandora.
“I realise now – I never did before –” She hunted for words and I turned and stared at her.
“What are you trying to say?”
“I realise now that we’re an odd sort of family.”
“Well of course we are.”
“But I mean – Oh, Morgan, I do want you all to get married too!”
“Five of us? I doubt if even Mrs. Bennet managed as well as that, unless she fell back on a few parsons to help out. However, dearest, we’ll do our best.”
It is obvious that life cannot be normal for these five – but Guard Your Daughters isn’t self-consciously wacky or absurd. The events are entirely plausible – there are very amusing scenes where Morgan and Teresa try to run a Sunday School lesson, or Morgan and Thisbe attempt to negotiate a cocktail party, or the girls try to put together a meal for a visiting young man while subsisting on rations (and finer things illegally given by a nearby farmer.) The various relationships between sisters aren’t unlikely either – except perhaps the standard of their conversation and wit. What makes the Harvey family eccentric is their detachment from the outside world, and their complete absorption in the feelings and doings of the family unit, to the exclusion of almost everybody else. (The family unit is completed, incidentally, by their father and mother. No Mortmain-esque step-parents in sight. The father is only mildly absent-minded, and the mother… well, she has sensitive nerves… it’s not all easy-going in this household or this novel.)
But, despite Pandora’s fears, they do manage to meet a couple of young men. Gregory’s car fortuitously breaks down outside their gate (remind you of any novel?) and, later, Patrick offers Morgan and Teresa a lift in his car while they’re on their way to a nunnery to learn French… Aside from owning cars, these young man share bewilderment at the Harvey family, and both become objects of desire for one sister or another. Unlike I Capture the Castle, the romance plot never becomes of overriding importance. Far more important is the family, their love and rivalry, and definitely their comedy. There are many very amusing scenes, and a few quite moving and difficult ones, but the main wonder of the novel is the family, and Morgan’s voice. She is not so self-conscious as Cassandra, but has an inviting, charming, slightly wry outlook on her sisters – coloured, of course, by her love for them. I have no idea how Tutton has created such a lovable character – if I knew, I’d bottle it.
|These aren’t the sisters in the book, of course… but they could be.
It’s so difficult to write about a book when I have simply loved it. I want to shelve any critical apparatus (not that I usually drag it out on my blog) and substitute rows of exclamation marks and smiley faces. Guard Your Daughters is so warm, so funny, so lively and delightful. It’s a warm blanket of a novel, but never cloying or sentimental. Basically, if you have any affection for I Capture the Castle, you’ll feel the same about Guard Your Daughters. I’m going to go one step further. I think it’s better than I Capture the Castle. There. Said it.
Bizarrely, unbelievably, criminally, it is out of print. But I’ve seen the edition I have (the Reprint Society, 1954) in lots and lots of bookshops – I think they may have overestimated the demand! I would love people to read it, so I’ll probably buy up copies when I see them, and force them on friends and family… if it’s languishing on your shelves, then go and grab it asap. I’m so grateful to my friend Curzon for initially recommending it to me, and later Nicola Humble (author of the absolutely essential The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920 to 1950s) for reminding me about it at a conference earlier this year. It’s probably my book of 2012 so far, and if you manage to get a copy, please come and let me know what you thought.
Oh, what a heavenly book!