The Stratton Story, or, Mrs Westerby Changes Course / Elizabeth Cadell
London : Severn House, 1985, c1967
I picked up this book in my library (though with the ugly & irrelevant reprint title & cover below, not the charming title & cover of the original to the right) expecting a light and twee read of England. I'm not sure where I got that idea.
It was not as light, twee, or period as I'd assumed. From the description I'd thought it would be set around the 40s, but it was contemporaneous with its writing, set in the 60s. The main character Gail Sinclair is a pretty young secretary at a small publishing house in England, and class and gender assumptions are all out in full force.
Gail is good at dealing with their unexpectedly successful author, Mrs. Stratton. She's written a book which is bringing in quite a lot of attention and money, which is lovely now that her husband has died. Everything seems to be looking up for this charming widow, except that her sister-in-law, the much older Mrs. Westerby, wants to share in her success and stay closely connected.
Mrs. Westerby, however, is loud, uncouth, all brash country behaviour which pains and embarrasses Mrs. Stratton in polite company. Nothing can dissuade Mrs. Westerby from her course of action, though, and Gail can sense that Mrs. Stratton feels both distaste and fear when Mrs. Westerby is around.
Through a few unexpected circumstances, Gail meets Mrs. Westerby at her own home in the country, at which point she realizes that she rather likes her -- she doesn't seem like such a crashing bore now. And then Gail gets roped into driving Mrs. Stratton to the Pyrenees on her own way to meet up with her brother in Europe: there's a house whose belongings need to be divided up between Mrs Stratton and Mrs Westerby, and they don't want to go together.
Gail keeps encountering Mrs Westerby and her nephew who is driving her all the way across country, though good roads and bad, mountain detours, and small hotels. And when they finally arrive, all the puzzling behaviours of all three of these individuals begin to finally make sense to Gail -- no sooner than they did to me, however, as the ending was very surprising and a huge reversal to what I had assumed the story was leading to. It was quite exciting, even with all the sexism which coloured the whole plot.
I was reading this light book just before I began reading Wharton's The House of Mirth, and strangely enough, there was some thread of connection between them. The crushing need for women to marry for money, so vital to The House of Mirth, still existed when Cadell wrote this story - at least she used it in her plotting - and being accepted or snubbed in good society, vital for the two Mrs, rests uncomfortably alongside a more loosey-goosey 60s counterculture that Gail and her family represent. This is a pivotal point in society, it seems.
In any case, the mystery in this one is actually quite good, and fairly twisty for its time. I enjoyed reading this; the characters were all individuals with quirks and hidden depths. While the romance was fairly perfunctory (what is it with people announcing their true love at the end of books when they've barely spoken throughout?), the romance was also not really the point in this one. Love in other forms took precedence.
This was an interesting read, enough so that I'd like to read a few more of her books to see if she writes the same way in those, or if they really are more of the light-hearted fluff I was expecting here. Another reading project, quelle surprise ;)