When Simon waxed lyrical about Guard Your Daughters a couple of weeks ago, I knew I had to read it. Any book that has shades of I Capture the Castle about it (and certainly no shades of grey!) is sure to be a hit with me, so I hopped on over to amazon, paid my 1p, and promptly had a copy delivered to my doorstep. I began reading immediately, and was enchanted from the very first page. Where has Diana Tutton been all my life?! This is the sort of book that is pure pleasure from start to finish, with hordes of wonderfully engaging characters, a slightly bonkers but still totally absorbing plot that is littered with references to Pride and Prejudice and a conversational, conspiratorial tone that draws you in and makes you feel completely involved in the goings on of the world that has been created inside the covers. I’ve just been teaching the art of Narrative Writing to my GCSE class this week, and I would have loved to have given a copy of this to each of my students. It’s the perfect example of an imaginative, engrossing, well plotted and delightfully characterised story, that also has a twist in the tale and leads you down a path you weren’t quite expecting at the outset. It’s such a treat to discover a new favourite; one that you know you’ll treasure and delight in for years and years to come. I already can’t wait to re-read it!
So, why is this book so fabulous? Well, for starters, it has a cast of absolutely fantastic characters, with equally fantastic names. The narrator of the novel is Morgan, the middle of five sisters growing up in a rambling Georgian house in rural England. Pandora, the eldest, has just married and moved to London. Next is beautiful, haughty Thisbe, who spends her days writing poetry. After Morgan comes Cressida, the sensible and conventional one who is responsible for the cooking and housekeeping, and is desperate for a normal life. Finally, there is the youngest, Teresa, who is babied by everyone and whose only education has been being taught snippets of literature, music and domestic science by her older sisters. Morgan is attempting to be a pianist, but doesn’t apply herself enough to truly excel. She is a romantic, with a vivid imagination, moods that fluctuate wildly and a longing for adventure. The girls’ parents are rather absent…their father is a famous writer of crime novels, who spends most days holed up in his study, and their mother is ‘delicate’, spending most of her time in her bedroom. As such, the girls must largely fend for themselves. When the novel opens, they are primarily concerned with finding young men, which, in an isolated household with little opportunity to go out and meet others, is much easier said than done.
We enter the Harvey sisters’ lives at a pivotal point. Pandora’s marriage has awakened her younger sisters to the idea of romantic possibility, and they see her life as the ideal they should all aspire to. However, Pandora’s marriage has in turn awakened her to the reality of how claustrophobic and limited her sisters’ upbringing has been, with no education and no social interaction. She dares to challenge their parents’ choices over the girls’ upbringing, opening a can of worms and planting seeds of change in her sisters’ minds. When two men, Gregory and Patrick, wander into their lives, they will expose both the girls’ naivety and their parents’ flaws in stark detail. Much hilarity, frustration and ridiculous attempts to outwit their parents ensue as Cressida and Thisbe fall in love, Morgan attempts to wangle herself a trip to London and Teresa tries to get out of being educated.
As highly spirited, hilarious and heartwarming as this novel is, there is also a serious undertone that gives the book a depth and sophistication that I certainly didn’t expect. While this is a bildungsroman of sorts, charmingly chronicling the growth of Morgan from childhood into womanhood, it is also a fascinating exploration of how damaging parents can be when they allow their own selfish desires to outweigh the needs of their children. The Harvey girls have been sequestered in their home for years, guarded by their parents from the influence of the outside world. At first this appears wonderful, with the girls forming their own imaginative and loving self contained existence with plenty of innocent and cosy routines, such as a shared bath time when they all pile into the warm bathroom before bed to share their secrets. However, as the story develops, it becomes clear that this isolation is being enforced by their mother, whose capricious temper and misguided, obsessive love for her daughters controls their every move and prevents them from leading independent, fulfilling lives. The girls’ charming pluckiness and ability to derive joy from every situation is even more admirable and heartwarming when the reader begins to understand the restrictions they live under and the eggshells they must always walk upon. As I neared the end, I couldn’t bear to put the book down, so concerned was I as to how it would all turn out.
This is a brilliant book, written with real skill, humour and warmth that kept me hooked until the very last sentence. I’m still thinking about Morgan and her sisters, and I wish there was a sequel so that I could keep reading about them and their adventures. I’m shocked that it’s out of print; it really is in the same league as I Capture the Castle, and it’s definitely Persephone material. You must read it, and if you’re lucky, you might get to sooner than you think, as I have a spare copy that I am happy to send out to an appreciative reader. Let me know if you want it (caveat – it is phenomenally musty smelling. Oh, and doesn’t come with a dustjacket) – I’ll do a draw if more than one person asks. My thanks must once again go to Simon for recommending this absolutely exquisite gem of a novel; it’s a new all time favourite, and it’s going straight into my canon of comfort reads!