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!