Emily Dennistoun is one of the manuscripts by D E Stevenson discovered in the attic a few years ago & now published by Greyladies. It’s the story of a woman who has to learn to assert herself & fight to avoid succumbing to loneliness & depression & find happiness.
Emily lives with her stern, sarcastic father at Borriston Hall, a Georgian house on the coast of Scotland. Emily was always the neglected child. Both her parents preferred her younger brother, Charles, who was educated with a view to him joining the family firm after university. Emily’s education would have been completely neglected had it not been for Miss Helen Roe. Miss Roe was more than a governess to Emily; she was her only friend & champion. When the story begins, however, Emily’s mother has died after many years as an invalid & her father has sent Miss Roe away as he considers that his daughter has no need of a governess & is quite capable of running his home.
Emily is certainly capable but, at nearly 30, she realises that there’s little hope of her ever being able to leave her father. Charles is now 21 & he returns from college with a plan to open a furniture restoration business rather than go into the family firm. His father is furious &, although Emily sympathises with Charles, there’s little she can do. Charles introduces Emily to his friends the Murdochs, an artist & his wife who live nearby. Emily also meets Francis Hood, a doctor who has been a hero to Charles since their school days. There’s an immediate attraction between Emily & Francis but he has a secret that he’s reluctant to disclose & Emily’s shyness & his own diffidence mean that they part at the end of his visit with no clear understanding of each other’s feelings.
Charles has returned reluctantly to college & soon forgets his furniture idea when he falls in love with Alice Brunton, a pretty but shallow girl & they soon become engaged. Charles brings Alice home to meet his family & Harry Murdoch decides to paint her portrait. Unfortunately he’s a weak man only kept on track by his devoted wife, Laura, & he becomes infatuated with Alice. She’s flattered by his attentions &, after a fancy dress party where their mutual infatuation becomes obvious, they decide to run away together. At the same party, Francis & Emily have revealed their feelings at last, oblivious to the undercurrents affecting the others, & plan to meet the next day so that Francis can make a clean breast of his dreadful secret. However, Francis ends up chasing Harry & Alice to the railway station to try to stop their elopement, missing the meeting with Emily & causing old Mr Dennistoun to assume that it’s he rather than Harry Murdoch who was about to elope with his son’s fiancée. Francis’s efforts to set things right are thwarted by mischance & malice & he leaves for his new post at a London hospital without seeing Emily.
The shock of Francis’s departure & her father’s unkindness to her maid, Kitty, lead Emily to take decisive action. She goes to stay with Helen Roe, who has inherited a cottage in the south of England, taking Kitty with her. She decides to support Charles in his furniture business using the money she’s made from her writing, her only resource in the lonely years at Borriston. She also meets Sir Joseph Leate, an older man who is attracted to her. Francis, meanwhile, imagines that Emily has rejected him & buries himself in his work.
I enjoyed this book very much although there were a few too many coincidences & surprises in the plot. Emily’s writing is one of these surprises. One day, talking to Francis in the study at Borriston Hall, she calmly pulls a couple of books from the shelf & says that she’s written them. This is the first mention of her writing. It seems that she’s been using a pseudonym & Miss Roe has been acting as her agent, readying her manuscripts for publication & dealing with the publishers. Francis’s life story is another problem of believability for me. I won’t reveal the secret that he fears will prevent Emily marrying him but the resolution of his story is like a fairytale. However, these points didn’t stop me enjoying the story & being eager to get back to it every evening. Emily is a lovely character. Warm, intelligent, caring but a little naïve, I was desperate for her to escape from her bitter, uncaring father & find a life of her own. Francis is an attractive hero. Not physically attractive but honest, a bit blunt but very clever & determined to overcome the hindrance of his background. It struck me while reading Emily Dennistoun how similar the plot is to Fanny Burney’s Camilla which I’m also reading at the moment. The lovers separated by endless coincidences, plots by malicious people & unhappy chances; the spoilt, rather selfish brother providing another complication. There really are only so many plots in the world.
This edition comes with an interesting Introduction by D E Stevenson’s granddaughter, Penny Kent, about the rediscovery of the manuscript & her memories of her grandmother. She speculates on when the book was written & the possible reasons why it was never published. She thinks it was probably written in the 1930s but doesn’t know if it was ever submitted for publication. Maybe the War intervened or maybe it was because Stevenson’s eldest child, Patsy, died suddenly at the age of 11. I’m very pleased that it’s been published at long last.