Grace Before Meat by Sara Seale

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I finally got a copy of this oddly titled book (though still have no idea how “Grace Before Meat” describes it). It’s classic Sara Seale: a mid-teens heroine who looks even more childlike than her age, and acts even more childlike than that, a damaged hero well into his thirties, a glamorous other woman who’s a bitch-beyond-compare, a country house and a trip up to London and lots of clothes. Oh – and some debts and a touch of blackmail. And very little romance/passion.

Scarlett is in her last year of school and has a contentious relationship with “Granite-Face”, the school’s riding and fencing master. All the other girls have crushes on him – and the books goes on about this at length – but not Scarlett. In a capricious, bizarre and frankly implausible turn of events (could Sara Seale really make this work no other way? Having the hero even call it “crazy” does not give an author a free implausibility pass) her grandfather appoints Granite-Face, aka Lewis Fettridge (eurgh) as a sort of guardian/trustee.

Lewis is to hold the purse strings once grandpop dies. Because it turns out that Scarlett is illegitimate, her mother was some self-centred actress, so grandpop plans to leave everything to her younger sister Frankie, even though Scarlett is his favourite.

Why? you may well ask. Given they’re both girls, and have the family name, does it even matter if Scarlett is illegitimate (plus grandpa blocked her father marrying her mother, so frankly he owes her for that).

There’s so much silliness here it gets a bit tiresome, to be honest. Scarlett starts spending lots of money because no one has told her she’s not the heir and she feels entitled. Then she finds out and marries Lewis and realises this “inheritance” is just as “rich”. Sure.

In one subplot, Lewis has a disabled step-sister called Hope who is probably one of the worst and weirdest representations of a disabled character in the history of fiction. She’s a “twisted little creature, with the restless possessive dark eyes and fretful tongue” who is an invalid and always in bed. Only she can walk, and walks instantly when Scarlett challenges her too, and can climb up and down stairs, and later we learn she has a bit of a limp. She also seems to be perfectly intelligent, though I’m sure there was a line about her mind being all twisted up. She hasn’t got long to live (why? what is actually wrong with her?) and she conveniently and quickly dies of a “chill that had turned to pneumonia” just before the end.

How does Scarlet react?

“It isn’t awful at all,” said Scarlet practically. “She was a miserable little girl as you well know, Frankie, and it’s the best thing that could happen to Lewis. Now he’ll be able to call his soul his own in his own home.”

And indeed Lewis couldn’t be sorry, for Hope was like a little sick animal, best out of the way.

Call me sentimental, but I’ve mourned dead beetles more than this.

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