Tessa, 18, pretends she is secretly engaged to the long-absent son of the manor house, to get rid of a creepy suitor. Then the long-absent son, Max, 34, shows up, somehow learns about the lie, and “claims” her as his fiancée.
Once again, as with The Third Uncle, Sara Seale plays this one really close to the bone. Tess may be 18, which in fairness is legal and was considered a perfectly marriageable age in the 1940s, but in no way is she presented as an 18-year-old woman ready for independence and adulthood.
Instead, the whole book takes pains to portray her in as childlike and childish a manner as possible. She is constantly referred to as a “child” and even a “stubborn little girl” and “stable boy”. She spends all her time running around in old clothes with her younger sister, covered with mud and horses. There’s a conversation where it is emphasised how straight-up-and-down – and free of womanly curves – her figure is.
She is innocent to the point of never even having kissed a boy before, nor of ever having any romantic feelings or inclinations towards anyone. The first adult dress she ever wears – not even owning one – is her dead mother’s wedding dress. I don’t know exactly what 1940s formal fashions were like, but it seems a stretch that one would wear a boned-bodice ivory meringue to a dinner party, and not look like they were patently dressed up as a bride.
We even get phrases like “He held her anguished young body close to his…”.
Let’s not even get started on Max, who despite his claim to have had “a penchant for smart, sophisticated older women”, confesses:
“I’ve loved you ever since I came to church expecting a hussy, and finding, instead, a silly, enchanting child.”
Very hard to stomach in this day and age, and I’d be surprised if contemporary readers didn’t find it rather off.
NB: My edition was 1966. I’ve since discovered this book was originally published in 1946. I don’t know if certain details were updated for the paperback publication. It’s odd, at any rate, that there is zero mention of the war if it were published the year after the war ended. Rationing was still in place then, in fact it became even more severe after the war when Britain suffered a near-famine, but the characters here seem to eat to their hearts’ content.