John Darnay is a successful painter. His work has sold well and now he decides he will paint the countryside around Scotland (which entails renting ‘Tog’s Mill’, up in the hills!)
When the Darnays hire a new cook, Sue Pringle is more than ready to take on a job. Having lost her mother several years before, Sue has completed her teen years cooking and cleaning for her father and young brother, Sandy. The loss of his first wife has changed Will Pringle into a sober, taciturn and sometimes harsh father. When Will remarries, Sue and Sandy have trouble welcoming their new stepmother into the home.
Hearing about the need for a cook gives Sue a way out of her drab home life. However, just after Sue arrives at her new job, Mrs. Darnay leaves her husband, packing up her bags and departing for the bright lights of London and taking her maid with her. Mrs. Darnay, who is French, and her French maid, are *not* happy living in the wilds of Scotland. They miss the city life and the excitement of Paris, London, parties, and shopping.
Although John Darnay encourages Sue to go back home (since his wife has left), she decides to stay on in her new job and make a go of it.
As the weeks and months pass, Sue finds herself loving the countryside and hills of Scotland, taking her daily walks after her work is done. Sue finds purpose and new meaning in her new life, and begins to develop a friendship with the artist. She even begins to ‘cover’ for him, when bills in town become due, convincing the merchants (who are old friends of hers), that Darnay will pay them eventually.
After experiencing the harsh criticisms of her father and his new wife, it is natural for Sue to blossom and develop a loyalty to her new employer who offers her friendship, support and affirmation. What Sue does not expect or foresee, is for her heart to be drawn away.
“Sue locked the door behind her and set off for a walk, taking the hill path. It was still raining in the wind, but she did not mind that, for the rain was in tune with her mood and therefore more welcome than bright sunshine. She walked slowly and heavily, for there was no spring in her body, and wound her way wearily toward the hills. Part of her saw and noted the rain, the birds, the brownish-red buds on the bog myrtle, and part of her was withdrawn, suffering in a sort of dark, dumb misery. This was not the first time Sue had suffered mental agony, for she had suffered the same kind of loss when her mother died. Then as now, the whole light of her life had been extinguished in a moment – the whole light of her life.”
This novel was another of DE Stevenson’s ‘comfort reads’. I especially liked the chapter describing a fun New Year’s Eve dinner party, but also the descriptions of winter in Scotland were charming and made for a nice cosy winter-time read!
In this story, it is interesting to see the way the author ‘grows’ the characters through simple everyday life experiences. Sue’s brother Sandy has some growing to do, as does Sue herself:
“You’re so brave!” exclaimed Sue impulsively.
“Not really brave,” replied May with a faint smile. “I’m an awful coward at night. I think of the bills and try to calculate how much money we’ve got left, but it’s no use going about with a long face and moaning over our bad luck, for that would only make things worse. I’ve got to think of Alec and keep him cheerful and that’s a great help. It’s when you’ve only got yourself to think of that it’s difficult to smile through troubles.”
Sue digested this philosophy in silence, for she saw that she could apply it to her own case. ‘And May’s troubles are worse than mine,’ Sue thought as she walked home across the moor, ‘for I’m sure of a roof over my head and plenty to eat. My troubles are imaginary. They are all in myself, and the best thing to do is to pull myself together and make the best of life.’ “
It is refreshing to see that there are moral conflicts in the story that are not simply dismissed as ‘old-fashioned morality’, but rather the characters make choices based on what simply is right. Over the years with the changes in society in divorce laws it now seems to be much easier to sever the bonds of marriage (and whether that is ‘progress’ or no, is a discussion for another day!) But in this novel and in Sue Pringle’s time, things were different. Divorce with all of its repercussions was a drastic measure, and seen as such.
Choosing not to defend the charges now against him, Darnay allows the divorce to go through uncontested (even though he had grounds for ‘abandonment’). However, this is no tidy, neat process (it never is), and Stevenson portrays Darnay with natural, human reactions.
As so often occurs in real life, we are most drawn to those who seem sympathetic to us. Given Sue’s sympathetic, intuitive nature, Darnay finds (to his dismay) that he cannot hide his struggle or resentment:
“You’re dead right, Miss Bun. I was in a tearing rage when I painted that picture. I thought I had sublimated my rage, but I hadn’t.”
Sue understood now. “Why, of course,” she cried. “You painted your feelings into it.”
“But I shouldn’t have”, he told her. “You seem to think that makes it right, but it’s all wrong. What are my feelings worth? I must be no worth than a seeing eye, a crafty hand. I must allow the tree or the flower I paint to exhibit its own nature – that is art. I thought I was painting the soul of the willow, but it was my own black soul I was painting – that’s no good. An artist must paint as though he were God.”
It is very evident that Darnay’s painful experiences have brought out his strength of character and maturity. Sue herself, with her quiet (although not always easy) background and particular family life, has some growing up to do, and with it, some choices to make. Should she take the easy road and marry Hickie, her family’s choice of a good, dependable husband, and in the process, gain her family’s approval (and in the long run, isn’t that what we all want, to gain the approval of those we love most?)
Whatever your thoughts on love, romance and traditional marriage and what true fidelity looks like, read D.E. Stevenson, if for no other reason than for the pleasantry of a good comfort read.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bulloch were sitting by the fire. Mrs. Bulloch was knitting a gray sock, and Mr. Bulloch was reading out tidbits from the evening paper. They were very happy and completely in harmony. The fire burned merrily in the grate and was reflected in dancing points of light in the lenses of Mrs. Bulloch’s spectacles and on the highly polished surface of her knitting needles. Outside the wind howled, and now and then the windows rattled, but this only served to accentuate the comfort of the cosy room.”