Friday, November 02, 2018

House of Windows

The House of Windows / Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
London: Cassell, c1912.
338 p.
(read in ebook format)

I was first introduced to this Canadian author via The Dusty Bookcase, when varied titles by this author were reviewed there. I first picked up, or in actuality, downloaded, this one: it is set in a department store and opens with the chaos following a huge semi-annual ribbon sale. That was enough enticement for me! 

It's quite a delightful read: melodramatic, full of improbable coincidence, angelic women, strong businessmen and so forth. But with an edge of social awareness, as well. It reminds me of the way a recent read, Mrs. Westerby Changes Course, straddled two eras in its narrative, but in this case, Mackay straddles Victorian melodrama and the social conscience of a New Woman novel. 

The shop girls at this large department store (reminiscent of Eaton's perhaps) in this large fictional Canadian city (very reminiscent of Toronto) are worked off their feet. 10 hour days, 6 days a week, and very stringent guidelines for their behaviour. Management has conceded far enough to provide stools behind every counter, although all of the shop girls know that you are not to actually sit down, ever. And they work for a wage that isn't close to a living wage. Mackay delves into labour practices throughout this novel, interwoven intimately with the story. Adam Torrance, owner of this empire has firmly told his manager that only girls with an outside income to supplement their own starvation wages should be hired, so as not to have their girls turning to....other sources of income....  Eventually his older sister points out the illogical nature of this decision, but overall, he thinks he's doing pretty well by his employees, even if they don't.

But as to the other elements in this story: at the end of the opening chapter, in the chaos ensuing from the big sale, the shop girls find a baby in a carriage abandoned behind a counter. While they all dither, a new girl decides to just take the baby home and care for it herself alongside her angelically beautiful but blind sister. To her credit, they do all believe that this is just a poor child cast off by an uncaring mother, and has nothing to do with the gossip headlining the papers just now -- that the infant daughter of the shop owner himself, Adam Torrance, has been kidnapped. 

So many of these obvious coincidences occur as the child, now Christine Brown, grows up in the company of her two "older sisters". When she is nearly 17, all the characters are drawn together inevitably and the relationships begin to develop. But wait! Christine is now the victim of another kidnapping plot! Mark, Adam's adopted heir and lover of Christine, is in an auto accident and has amnesia! 

As Brian Busby's post notes, the action is reflective of a silent film in many parts, particularly the last section. While the book starts out focused on working conditions for young women in retail (tldr: dreadful) the melodrama takes over in the end. Still, there are some wonderful characters, and lots of entertaining plot to keep you reading. I really enjoyed the various strands to this story, and thought it concluded effectively. 

But the focus on the working lives of young women in these common jobs at the beginning of the 20th century lifts this from just light fluff. Mackay is clearly pointing out the fallacies that management used to justify their sexist treatment of these many, often very young, girls. It's shocking how many lines I could have picked out and quoted, and we wouldn't be able to tell if they came from this 1912 novel or a current newspaper. 

I hope that her intent to educate while entertaining was effective in 1912 and that some of her readers were inspired to improve their situations. I was suitably impressed and entertained while reading it myself. 


  1. I'm glad you were impressed and entertained, overall, by this book. Excellent, thoughtful review (as always)!

    1. Thanks :) I love discovering something new and engaging.

  2. Are we two the only people to have read The House of Windows this millennium?

    I wonder.

    Thank you for reminding me. You're so right that its themes are all too relevant today (and even more so than in 2013, when I first read the novel).

    Your post has me reconsidering her next novel, Up the Hill and Over (1917), and its depiction of drug abuse in a small Ontario town. It too seems relevant today. I've read all but a handful (literal) of Mackay's books, and say without reservation that it is my favourite. Recommended!

    1. I'd say...likely ;) Thanks for introducing me to this author who I'd missed entirely throughout a CanLit university education and a lifetime of reading Canadian! I will definitely check out her other books, starting with Up the Hill and Over since you recommend that one -- and yes, the theme sounds timely.


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