Thursday, 20 September 2012

Guard Your Daughters - Diana Tutton




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.
"What?"
"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.
(picture source)

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!

68 comments:

  1. Ooooh, better than I Capture the Castle? Strong words! You do make it sound delightful, I wonder how hard it would be to track down a copy?

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    1. I do wonder if I've been too bold, there! It's very easy to get a copy off Amazon - they're going for a penny... tempt, tempt!

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  2. Well, I have just ordered a copy from Amazon based on your review, so I'm excited to get it and read it!

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    1. Brilliant! Do let me know what you thought :)

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  3. Better than I Capture The Castle? I. Must. Read. This. I've ordered a copy from AbeBooks (for once my libraries have disappointed me) and can't wait for it to arrive!

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    1. And your library usually has everything! But I'm glad you didn't stop with them - can't wait to hear what you think (with some trepidation!)

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    2. My copy arrived today and I'm tempted to dive right in...except I'm caught in the middle of Ann Thwaite's wonderful biography of A.A.M. This is the kind of problem I like to have as a reader! I am really, really, really (in triplicate) loving the Milne biography and felt that you of all people would be able to appreciate my enthusiasm for it.

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    3. That is a very nice quandary to have! Both wonderful books, and I certainly do appreciate your enthusiasm for the Thwaite biography - I must re-read it. I have read it three times, but they were all in 2002/3 I think!

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  4. Ditto Claire's comments - well, I'm off to check ABE anyway. Hopefully all the copies haven't been snaffled up yet!

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    1. Hurrah! Still plenty of super-cheap copies on Amazon at the mo...

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  5. If you say better than, better get it on the TBR asap.

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    1. Brilliant! (I was hoping to slip that 'better than' towards the end, but everyone noticed... and now I feel like my neck is on the line!)

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  6. I didn't like I Capture the Castle. I realise I am THE ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD who didn't, of course. But, as you say, since it's better than ICTC, well, then, obviously I'm sold too. ;-)

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    1. You DIDN'T?? But why, oh why??

      Ahem.

      All is forgiven if you like Guard Your Daughters ;)

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    2. I think it was the tone. I found it all too contrivedly eccentric.

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  7. My goodness what a recommendation. Must obviously read this -- many thanks!

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    1. I decided to go for Book Snob levels of enthusiasm with this one!

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  8. Wow! As others have said, that is some recommendation... as an I Capture the Castle fan how could I possibly resist...

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    1. You can't and couldn't! Hie thee to a bookshop :D

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  9. I Capture the Castle is my actual favourite book ever, so I am extremely excited about this and off to Abebooks myself to track down a copy! Thank you for letting us know about this one!

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    1. Lovely! Since ICTC is your favourite ever book, I suspect you won't *prefer* GYD, but you'll certainly love it :)

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  10. Clearly a 'must read'! Thankyou, Simon.
    (This sounds like one for Bloomsbury Reader.)

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    1. Good point! It only seems to have been reprinted once since 1954 - in the 70s - so it is crying out for a reprint. Although my book-loving heart hopes it'll be a hard copy...

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  11. Might sound a daft question, but do you think this book would be suitable for a 12-year-old (girl)? Trying to find books for my daughter that aren't about vampires and solely what I read as a child is proving challenging. She has I Capture the Castle but hasn't read it yet...

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    1. I think it definitely could be, Rebekah. Although Morgan is 19, she feels much younger, and I think this could be a good vampire-alternative... unless she's big on romance angles to novels, because there isn't much of that! ICTC also would be brilliant for a 12 year old, wouldn't it?

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    2. No, she isn't big on romance - still at the stage where boys = horrible. I bought ICTC for her partly based on your blog (no pressure :-)), not having read it myself - must do so.

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    3. Even better, then!
      But yes, Rebekah, I feel certain that you'd like I Capture the Castle! Then you could even watch the film together (which is actually really good.)

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  12. *Sigh* - just snagged a copy (with d/j!) for a snip on Amazon - they'll be wondering why there's a sudden run on this book! My tbr will continue to groan....

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    1. Hurrah! I do like to keep an eye on Amazon sales after I've blogged about an obscurer title, and it's fun to see the numbers tumble!

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  13. Does this mean that you *don't8 want the book of Mary Webb's poetry that I was going to give you for Christmas? :)

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  14. I really miss I Capture The Castle, read it last month and apart from Austen I can't think of anything similar so from your comparisons I reckon I really ought to read this one. The Pride And Prejudice references sound great in themselves. Pity it's out of print as it's not in the public domain yet. Hello Amazon...

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    1. There are lots of references to Austen, which made it all the more fun! (Also some to Shakespeare which made me feel very ignorant...)

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  15. Incidentally, Simon, are those your bookshelves in the background of the photo with all the nice Persephones???

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    1. They are indeed! I have two and a half shelves of Persephone books - that is the half!

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  16. UGH I have walked past this SO MANY TIMES. I heard about it from someone ages ago and have often nearly bought it - most recently just a couple of weeks ago when I saw it for £1 on charing cross road. And now I can't just pop back and get it! Off to amazon I go. Can't wait to read it - you've made it sound amazing!

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    1. How frustrating, Rachel! It's always the way isn't it - and then, when you want it, you won't see it for months. But hurrah for Amazon :)

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  17. Oooh you have completely sold this to me! Just bought a copy. And so convinced am I that it will become a favourite I forked out £3.50 for a 'decent' copy. Such recklessness. But I KNOW you can be trusted. And thank you in advance for giving me a new beloved book.

    Helen (gallimaufry) (pesky Blogger!)

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    1. Such recklessness indeed! But I have every confidence that it'll be worth it :) Thank you for your lovely kind words - and apologies on behalf of Blogger!

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  18. Fantastic! I will have to get myself a copy, it sounds amazing. Have even taken the liberty of writing a post about it because you inspired me so :-)

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  19. Hi Si

    I am almost tempted. If it comes home with you I'll give it a go!

    Dad

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    1. Golly! That could be your novel for the year! (Have you read I Capture the Castle?)

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  20. I absolutely adore those Reprint Society covers, I get so notsalgic about them. I've ordered a copy too. I have just read a recent book that reminded me a great deal of ICTC - A Brief History of Montmaray, by Michelle Cooper. I thought it was charming.

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    1. Lovely, I look forward to your thoughts - and thanks for the recommendation of a book I don't know.

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  21. Your review tempted me too and I ordered a copy of the Reprint Society edition. I thought it was a good bargain at £2.99 inc. postage. It's just arrived and has inside the bulletin of that Society from September 1954 which includes a short article by Diana Tutton. So a great bargain and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

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  22. Hm I'm definitely going to read this. That cover is lovely. Do good books attract good covers more often than bad ones? When I have bought a book solely judging it by the cover it has always ended up being worth it.

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    1. A very good question! I know that a good cover makes me much more likely to read a book, once it's got as far as my shelves, so perhaps my results are skewed...

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  23. Oh, what a wonderful book! I really enjoyed it! Thank you for recommendation, Simon. By the way I also loved "The Piano Shop on the Left Bank" from your "50 books you must read..." list. Since I started following your blog I read more books in English than I did in Polish (my English teacher would be pleased). I've never thought I'd enjoy reading in English (or any other foreign language) but I do (my English teacher would be pleased even more :)). Well... it's never going to be entirely the same, but... that makes it even more special. Anyway, thank you for writing and thank you so much for the sketches. All the best.

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    1. I'm so please, Agnieszka! And hurray for The Piano Shop too :)

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  24. Ohhh, I have to get this! My library doesn't have it, but once I'm back from my trip, I'm ILLing it straight away. :D

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  25. Have been reading your blog for a few months, but never commenting. Need to thank you for bringing this book to my attention - was sold once you compared it to "I capture the castle" and rightly so.

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    1. You're very welcome, Kirsty! So glad you liked it :)

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  26. Right, I'm finally adding my voice of dissent! I too greatly enjoyed I Capture the Castle - but despise Guard Your Daughters. It just seemed a second-rate knock off of ICTC. It was cloying and sentimental, and Morgan's narrative voice never achieves the distinctiveness or charm of Cassandra. The family are so self consciously pleased with being eccentric, while at the same time continually marking their position in the upper-middle classes. Odd, really, to be continually saying how special you are, while at the same time showing how you know how to behave in a way which is shows you belong to a certain group.

    As Pandora says of the people she now has to live amongst: "Rather lace-curtainy, a lot of them. I think they think I'm very badly brought up because I don't say pardon and I do say sweat." Morgan replies "Well, don't let them corrupt you.".

    I know these class markers are very common in novels of this period, but this one is just so SMUG. Phew, got that off my chest now. Simon, I hope you don't mind my little rant!

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    1. Oh, Erica! Well, we've already discussed this a bit in person, so at least it didn't shock me completely ;) If you don't want to pass it onto me, then at least give it to one of your book group sometime, and find out what they think!

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    2. Simon, it hurts me so much to say this, but I've read the book now and I'm joining Erica in the dissenters camp. Just wanted to warn you so the shock won't be too great when I finally post my review...

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    3. Claire! Oh, Claire! I can hardly believe it! The shock is pretty great now, but I'll have calmed down by the time your review appears (!)

      I really am quite stunned, and intrigued to see what you could possibly not have liked about it. It's so perfect for you!

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  27. Thank you for your understanding! I'm taking it over to the library today to add to the collection, where I am sure it will find more happy readers. Makes me think maybe we should have a reading group on the theme 'eccentric families' - there should be quite a few.... If you read Margaret Kennedy's Constant Nymph let me know what you think.

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    1. Great idea! The Brontes Went To Woolworths would work for that.
      I will let you know about The Constant Nymph :)

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  28. I'm so sorry you feel as you do about Mary Webb. Would you perhaps reconsider, and give Precious Bane another go? It's one of my favourite books. (Others are: Everything ever penned by Barbara Pym; Wilfred Blunt's Of Flowers and a Village; Nella Last's War; Agnes Jekyll's Kitchen Essays;Mildred Walker's Winter Wheat, and Elizabeth Harland's No Halt at Sunset.)
    Re: Knowing within a few pages...I was once forced to read a novel by Patrick White for school. I hated it until p.50 -- when I suddenly realized I was madly into it!

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  29. I ordered (and read) Guard Your Daughters, and throughly enjoyed. I thought the self consciousness/preciousness/English class system that I don't quite understand was a sort of barrier to the girls understanding their mother and father's relationship. In the household, all have a certain role to fulfill, and these roles prevent them from actually looking at the situation their family life is in. In many ways, Pandora, the oldest, is one of the most interesting characters, as is the uncle, because they see right through the situation, and don't put up with it.
    I'm reading the Red Riding quartet by David Peace now, and the Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford and I must say thinking about Guard Your Daughters makes me want to pick it up again.

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  30. I love ICTC and I loved Guard Your Daughters! My favourite bit in GYD is when Morgan talks about being afraid of losing sight of the little torch at the cinema and accidentally stepping on dead faces. DEAD. FACES.

    But one slight niggle ... I hated 'the Mummy.' I know she was meant to be highly-strung and all that but I just saw her as an awfully selfish and childish woman. Hated her.

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  31. Managed to find a clean though slightly and lovingly worn copy of GYD and ate it up with a spoon. Loved it!

    I agree with Helen, above, that Mummy is odious.

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  32. So I've read this now, and I liked it. But I'm afraid I found it rather awkward and clumsy at the seams, occasionally - especially when compared to ICTC, which is one of my favorite books in the whole world.

    However, GYD DID have moments of utter, sparkling brilliance, and I DID find it very hard to put down - and what more can one ask from a book, really?

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  33. I read this book years ago, picked it up again recently and found that I had forgotten all the details about the young men (I had had Patrick confused with Roy) but remembered everything about the sisters and their parents, even the cricket game and especially bath night!. The scenes where they dealt with food rationing stayed in my mind too (I love to eat). I remembered that money was tight, but had forgotten that Father was a successful writer who was stashing it away in case Mother had to have trained care some day, so perhaps I had him confused with the father in ICTC.

    I can see the comparison with ICTC but it also reminds me of the Mitford family in Nancy Mitford's novels and her sisters' memoirs: the family closed in on itself, shunning the neighbours and keeping the girls at home, although in that family the parents' roles were reversed. Everyone tip-toed around the father's moods, while the mother was kind but vague. Even the nickname for Teresa and the U/non-U snobbishness that others have mentioned here were Mitfordish.

    I remember also being afraid for Teresa who was so bright and yet was being encouraged by everyone to stay a child. You could almost see her at 30, unable to live in the world and staying at home in a co-dependent relationship with Mother like Little Edie and Big Edie in Grey Gardens.

    I don't think it's niggling to hate Mother although I suppose you're meant to forgive her too. Father has to come in for a lot of the blame as well

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