Dark Hester by Anne Douglas Sedgwick

The lovely Heather sent me Dark Hester many moons ago when I first arrived in the good old U S of A. To my shame I have left it sitting for far too long, and I am very sorry to have done so, because it is an incredibly enjoyable read. Dark Hester is about the relationship between Monica Willmott, a 50 something widow, her son Clive, and his new wife, Hester. Monica’s husband died after just a couple of years of marriage, leaving her to bring up Clive alone. She never remarried or had another significant relationship, and as such, all of her love, affection, hopes and dreams have been placed on Clive throughout his childhood, teen years and young adulthood. The pair have always lived together, in bright sunny Kensington homes that Monica has worked hard to ensure Clive always had the security of. Both mother and son adore each other, and their relationship is one in which no secrets are necessary, and only warmth exists between them. They are the great joy of each others’ lives, and there is nothing they would not do to ensure the other’s happiness.

However, as the book opens, it is clear that Clive has a secret to keep from his mother. He is in love, with a woman he knows she will not approve of. Monica has a great friendship with a pretty, delicate, musical young woman, Celia, who has been Clive’s companion since their childhood. Monica has always expected the two to marry, and when Clive comes home from a weekend away with the news that he has proposed to a woman named Hester, Monica is shocked and devastated. However, determined to put a brave face on things for Clive, she tries to be enthusiastic about his marriage, and is excited to meet his fiancée. When she meets Hester, though, her excitement soon develops into a profound dislike.

Dark haired, intelligent, opinionated, fashionable, seemingly heartless and unmistakably ‘modern’, Hester is the total antithesis to the romantic, golden haired Celia, and Monica is completely unable to understand Clive’s attraction to her. Despite her misgivings, Hester and Clive marry, and produce a lovely little boy, Robin. In the meantime, Monica, unable to cope with the loss of her son to a woman she has nothing in common with and cannot stand, abandons the London life she had loved so much and escapes to the countryside in Essex to be near Celia, who lives in a small, picturesque village with a friend. Clive and Hester stay in Chelsea, hosting their glamorous soirees for Hester’s artistic friends, but convinced that Monica is lonely, Hester persuades Clive that they should move out of London and into a nearby cottage. Monica dreads having Hester near her, and takes any opportunity to find fault in her character and her choices in bringing up her adored little Robin. When an Uncle of Celia’s friend shows up to stay in the village, all hell breaks loose; Monica finds herself falling in love with this handsome stranger, much to Clive’s anger, but Hester and the Uncle appear to have had some sort of past, and the repercussions of his arrival will prove to be the ultimate battle between mother and daughter in law, with very surprising consequences.

If this all sounds rather melodramatic, that’s because it is, in places. However, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the writing or characterization, both of which are excellent. Dark Hester reminded me very much of a Dorothy Whipple novel, in its quiet depiction of sunny, chintz filled drawing rooms and middle class protagonists wrestling with hidden emotions. Rather like Louise in Someone at a Distance, Hester represents modernity and change, and a new generation whose ideals are vastly different from that of their predecessors. Monica cannot fathom Hester, or understand why Clive loves her. She is unwilling to embrace change and finds herself floundering in a life that no longer seems to have a purpose. Still only in her early fifties, Monica is intelligent, beautiful and perfectly capable of having a full and interesting life, and without realizing it, she has allowed Hester to become the reason for her unhappiness rather than confronting her own failure to take charge of her future. Hester is intriguing, complex and a wonderful portrayal of a ‘modern woman’, product of the first generation who were able to live independently, pursue an education and be involved in politics. The fundamental differences between these women seem insurmountable, but Douglas Sedgwick’s sympathetic painting of two characters drawn together by their love of the same man allows for a convincing and pleasing conclusion that I loved.

If you enjoy Persephone books, you will love this. Anne Douglas Sedgwick was a prolific author in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and her novels seem to broadly focus on very domestic, class based, female centred topics that echo the concerns of the time, namely the vast discrepancy in the values of the younger generations in post war Britain. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to discover her lovely writing, and I look forward to dabbling in many more of her novels in future. I hope some of you will want to give her a go – a few of her books are available to read for free on Project Gutenberg, so that should give you some incentive!

Finally, do you want to know what contemporary readers of Anne Douglas Sedgwick were also reading? Look at my post here for the answers!

31 comments

  1. This novel sounds like it is right up my alley, Rachel. When you compared it to a Dorothy Whipple novel, I knew I had to read it. Thanks for the review!

  2. Well, that didn’t last long, did it, Rachel! You’re back to your old, dastardly habit of making me want, nay NEED, to read a book that I don’t already own. I can get Hester Dark by Emma Blair for 1p plus p&p from amazon, but Dark Hester deosn’t come cheaper than £10…

    It does sound very like a Dorothy Whipple plot and I love the photo of the book: a real, old-fashioned, dust-jacketed paperback! Lovely! Oh, well… (shuffles feet sadly) I’ll just have to give this one a miss… For now…. Maybe I should put it on my Christmas list…

    1. Oh Penny, I’m sorry! I am terrible, aren’t I?! If I find a cheap copy here I’ll get it for you! It’s about time I gave back after making you spend so much all the time!

  3. You do write such beautiful reviews, adding yet another book to my pile of ‘want to read’. Anne Douglas Sedgwick seems to be an author to look out for. By the way, my copy of Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna Stratton finally arrived yesterday. I can’t wait to start this!

    1. Oh thank you, how lovely of you to say so! She really is – I hope to gather a few more of her books to enjoy at some point – fortunately her books aren’t ruinously expensive which makes life easier!

      Fantastic! I can’t wait to hear what you think – such a brilliant book!

  4. Ooh, this does sound fabulous and reminds me a bit of The Tortoise and the Hare. The cover art is stunning as well. And thanks for bringing up that bloody spoiled brat, Louise…sheesh, it has been ages since I last wanted to give her a smack!

    1. Yes – there is something a little Tortoise and Hareish about it but the characters are not nearly as infuriating or difficult to sympathise with – it’s a gentler book. Oh dear, Darlene! I’ve touched a nerve with you, haven’t I?!😉

  5. Temptation reigns!

    I just discovered Project Gutenberg looking for a book I’m interested in and here you are, telling us all about it. Way ahead of me you are, Rachel. I just love the cover and, from the inviting review your post, it is a good judge of the pages inside.

    1. I’m sorry! I seem to be leading everyone into temptation! This was not my intention!

      Project Gutenberg is a fantastic resource, isn’t it? I see you can now download their books for free straight onto your kindle for portable reading – fantastic for those of us who enjoy out of print fiction! Almost worth getting a kindle for, I think!

  6. Oh! Those lovely place names, London and Essex! I’d love to read about how they were in the 20s and 30s. Like reading an Elizabeth Bowen about her Kent and London.
    I’ve been fighting the idea of a Kindle, being anti-technology, old- fashioned(ish) and without enough spending money for one – BUT I can feel one coming my way somehow. I know I’ll give in one day – have to keep up so as to have the pleasure of looking back. The ‘free’ bit is very tempting.
    Have you succumbed, Rachel?

    1. Yes, it’s wonderful to see those familiar names…I could just imagine the quiet white stucco squares of Chelsea and the leafy lanes of Essex…I miss England!

      Well I was just talking about this with a fellow blogger the other day and I must say I would consider a Kindle just for the freely downloadable classics and out of print books you can’t get hold of otherwise. I don’t have time to sit and read at my laptop and so a Kindle would be perfect for that. I also like the instant nature of it – if I wanted to read something RIGHT NOW then I could just download it and get going rather than wait a week for it to arrive in the post. There are negatives and I would never use it to replace regular reading but if I get a decent job when I return home and can afford a Kindle I would definitely consider it. Is my long winded answer!

  7. Anne Douglas Sedgewick — I have never heard of her until now. Thank you so much for enlightening me about an author I need to read. And one of your readers mentioned Elizabeth Bowen, oh how I love her books. I need to reread “The Death of the Heart,” one of my favorites. It truly is such a joy to learn from other bloggers. Thanks for all that you do for us!

    1. You are welcome Domenica! As it happens I have Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘To the North’ out from the library to read…I was so enchanted by Darlene’s review a while back that I couldn’t resist getting it. The blogosphere is such a wonderful place for us readers, isn’t it? I am so glad you have got so much from it too!🙂

  8. This sounds like a really interesting read. I definitely want to get into the Persephone/early twentieth century female writer groove over the summer. Congratulations on your Urban Outfitters splurge too! It sounds glorious. Bad is fun. x

    1. It’s a good groove to be in, Chuck! Nice and restful reading for lazy summer days. Thank you – I have been feeling very stylish all week with my new purchases! Bad IS fun and I refuse to be responsible just because I am 25!😉 x

  9. Interesting plot summarization and review – and it reminded me that I am yet to read Dorothy Whipple. “Dark Hester” seems like an intriguing book – will look out for it

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