Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Books on my Nightstand: The Children of Wilton Chase, L.T. Meade

On my older blog I used to do a lot of book reviews. I didn't like that they were smashed between my dressmaking diaries and fashion/lifestyle posts like a strange, thematically unappealing cocktail, so I neglected them in the end, along with my original blog (but I do have plans to revive Miss Morris, so stay tuned...). This blog is more focused around my original writing posts, plus illustrations, personal logs, and photography, but since it's a record of everything I find interesting, it would be nice to bring back my thoughts on the books I read!

There is a charity-run bookstore in my town, which is coincidentally a branch of the animal shelter I work in. I used to go there a lot years ago, but kind of forgot about it until just recently. As soon as you walk inside the door, you are faced with a huge bookcase filled with old, musty, and quite pretty-looking books labelled as "collectables". How I forgot about that shop, I don't know.
The first thing I spot is absinthe green with a glimmer of gold, and I am immediately intrigued. Picking up the book, I realise that it has a Victorian girl on the spine, printed in faded coppery tones. The cover is equally as beautiful, promising adventure and sweet, easy-going tales with affluent, well-dressed Victorian children.
Well, there wasn't much else needed to convince me to buy it after that point, even without a synopsis or any other indication of the plot. The cover alone was irresistible.
I knew I would love it, and I was right. Sometimes taking a chance does pay off, especially if the book is cheap - I only paid £2.99 and I'm pretty sure that I'll treasure it in my collection for many years to come!

I didn't really know what to expect when I opened up the front cover. A small boy that once lived locally had lovingly written his name and address on one of the front pages, and a small note from the seller indicated that the volume was published in 1891. The back pages contained an extensive catalogue of the other books and series that the publisher offered, and they seemed to have a common theme as being "suitable gifts for school prize givings" (I actually managed to pick up another book from the same publisher in the shop - score!).
This book was obviously intended for children and pre-teens to enjoy, so I found it to be a light-hearted, fun read, riddled with messages of morality and good values, just as you would expect from a children's author in the Victorian era.

Wilton Chase is a huge, breathtaking stately home located somewhere in the English countryside, run by the widower Mr Wilton, who has many, many children, each one of them wild, rambunctious, and still aching from the death of their mother. Mr Wilton seemed like a very absent father to me, only setting aside one day a year to spend quality time with his children, and that is his birthday. His poor kids aren't even allowed to share the same building with him, and are confined to a separate wing... Therefore, the children are governed by a dear friend of their deceased mother, a long-suffering but ultimately kind woman named Miss Nelson. This kind of family dynamic wasn't unusual for the time period, but I still felt very bad for both the children and the nanny, since it seemed to me that the lack of parents/warmth contributed to a lot of the rebellion and bad decisions made by the children in this story.
Whilst the author did not condone any of their actions, she wrote of them fondly, with a great sense of understanding and sympathy, which I really liked. The children and nanny all got the happy ending I was rooting for, and there was none of the "little Johnny fell down a well and died because very bad things will happen to naughty children who steal" kind of spiel that I anticipated from this sort of story.
Most of the story is from fourteen year-old Ermengarde's point of view, and whilst she seems like a very rotten, selfish girl at first, I became rather attached to her and her plight. She has a great love for her elder brother, Basil, him being her closest friend, confidant, and the only one she seems to feel affectionate towards. It is the love for her brother, and her ardent dislike of her nanny, which sets her up for a disastrous chain of events when she was forbidden to ride in the carriage to pick Basil up from his boarding school. Seething over her punishment, she disobeys Miss Nelson and joins her father on the journey anyway, and one small lie became another, and another, and another, until she became completely tangled in them, risking further punishments and losing the high esteem that Basil had for her... Ermengarde was not a perfect character by any means, but my heart broke for her when she was so sure that her brother would not love her anymore due to a petty crime that was not her fault.
The class distinctions in Wilton Chase were a very notable theme, Ermengarde being forbidden by her father to associate with twelve year-old Susan, a farm girl that lived on their estate. Locked up in Miss Nelson's parlour while the rest of her siblings were enjoying a picnic in the fields, the poor girl was lonelier than ever, and when she spotted Susan gathering eggs beneath her window, she found her boredom relieved by Suzy climbing through the window and joining her in the locked parlour. They share a dinner and Ermie feels comforted by the girl's sympathetic words.
Miss Nelson evidently felt bad for leaving Ermie out of the picnic when her brothers were home for the summer, and came back for her. In a panic, Ermengarde forced Susan into a cupboard and locked it so that the nanny would not see her unbidden guest, then heading down to meet her siblings. Despite having what she wanted, she could not relax for the thought of her friend suffocating and screaming inside the cupboard, so she made an excuse to go back to the room and rescue Susan. In her haste to get back to the picnic, she leaves the girl alone in Miss Nelson's parlour, who, tempted by the resemblance to herself she saw in a miniature hanging on the nanny's wall, pocketed it and ran home, justifying it by the thought that she was too poor to afford a photograph or miniature of herself, so the portrait could be a memento of her beauty.
The miniature had a lot of sentimental value to Miss Nelson, and she was rightly devastated to find it missing from her wall. Everyone seemed to expect that Ermengarde had something to do with its disappearance, but it was only when Susan fell and broke her leg, ending up extremely miserable, feverish, and near death, that the culprit confessed her sin to Ermengarde.
Not wanting to get her friend or herself in trouble, Ermie has to jump through a lot of hoops and disobey her nanny and father even more, in order to return the memento to its rightful owner... It was only with the help of her kind-hearted, good and honest younger sister, Marjorie (who, although taking a kind of background role throughout the story, was actually a very sweet character and the key to resolving all those issues), that everybody ended up reconciling, Susan heals, and Miss Nelson gets back her beloved miniature.

The plot was relatively straightforward and I got through the book within a couple of days; I enjoyed it so much that I ended up thinking about it during my daily routines, and I couldn't wait until nine o'clock to get back into bed and spend hours reading about the characters that soon felt like friends. With a mug of hot chocolate, The Children of Wilton Chase, and a handful of cherries, the hours before sleep became like heaven! Call me childish, but I really loved it that much! There were also about six black and white illustrations throughout, all very delicate and beautiful. I couldn't wait to see each new one as the story unfolded.

All in all, it was very wholesome and heartwarming - a very good pick-me-up after reading Lautreamont's "Maldoror"!
At the moment I'm reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for the first time, and I'm absolutely loving it! What are you currently reading? Let me know in the comments below!


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