Jean Erskine’s Secret is one of the manuscripts by D E Stevenson that was literally “found in the attic” a few years ago & published by Greyladies. I’ve read & enjoyed The Fair Miss Fortune & Emily Dennistoun but Jean Erskine’s Secret is the earliest of the manuscripts to be written. It’s thought to have been written in about 1917 & is set in the Scottish village of Crale in the years just before & during WWI.
Jean Erskine is a daughter of the manse. Her father is advised to move from his city parish to the country &, soon after their arrival, Jean meets Diana McDonald. Diana is living at Crale Castle with her uncle Ian & cousin Elsa. Her parents aren’t mentioned (Diana had previously lived with an aunt in Kensington) & Jean senses a mystery. However, the girls soon become great friends. Elsa is not a sympathetic person. She’s engaged to a young man, Ray Morley Brown, who Jean knew as a child. Elsa is sarcastic, petty & generally unpleasant, spending as much time as she can in Edinburgh with Ray & her other friends & looking down upon country society. Her father sees none of this & assumes that his daughter & niece are good friends. Jean also meets Fanshaw Locke, who lives nearby & works in Edinburgh. Romantic complications develop as Jean is attracted to Fan but believes that he’s in love with Diana.
The real subject of the book though is the friendship between Jean & Diana. The book is in the form of a story that Jean is writing about Diana, to explain the secret in Diana’s life. I won’t go into that part of the plot to avoid spoilers but the friendship between the two girls is touching & very believable. Both of them had been lonely & their friendship fills a gap in their lives that helps to make up for the disappointments & mysteries they have to overcome. Because so much of the plot is about secrets, I won’t say any more about the plot.
There are many things to enjoy in this book although I do wonder whether D E Stevenson would have wanted it to be published. It’s a very early work & there are plot holes & frankly unbelievably melodramatic incidents, particularly towards the end, that I felt were just ridiculous. One twist of the plot near the end reminded me more of Mary Shelley or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than the comfortably domestic fiction I associate with D E Stevenson. To me, this book shows all the signs of being a way for the author to try out different styles of writing & I do wonder what she might have toned down or changed if she’d ever revised the manuscript for publication. There are changes of personality in some of the characters that are inconsistent. For example, after being pretty despicable all through the book, Elsa suddenly has a complete change of personality when war breaks out & goes out to France as a (completely unqualified) nurse. There are too many coincidences involving friends and relations of Jean being involved with Diana & the Macdonalds to be altogether credible or necessary.
One of the aspects of Stevenson’s writing that I do love is her sense of place, particularly in her Scottish novels. Even in this early work, this is evident & I especially love she writes about weather. Here, Jean & Ian are walking through a rainy Edinburgh,
Edinburgh was a black dripping place today; the castle towered up threateningly, clearly seen against the light patches of grey sky in its jagged ebony outlines. Arthur’s Seat was swathed in a wet and smoky mist; here and there it was rolled back by a puff of chill wind, one caught a glimpse of black shoulder or jutting crag only half real in the gathering gloom. The trees in the gardens were sodden, the gardens themselves deserted and sloppy, the houses all dripping wet and as black as if the rain had been ink. Every street was a running river of muddy water, across which here and there a light twinkled out, making long pale yellow reflections like pointing fingers in the quickly falling gloom. On every face was written a patient yet sullen acceptance of the comfortless conditions, as their owners ploughed through the muddy water on their several businesses.
As always, she writes about the countryside beautifully,
The day fixed by Diana for her return was one of those rare days in winter when the whole world is like an old-fashioned Christmas card. Hoar frost outlined every branch of every tree and gleamed like powdered silver over the crackling ground. A pale pink mist shrouded the valley and softened the hard glare of the sun on the white-coated land.
All in all, I’m pleased to have had a chance to read this early work of one of my favourite authors & bringing more Stevenson novels back into print has to be a good thing.
Greyladies is also starting a new venture, a magazine, The Scribbler, that will be published three times a year. My copy of the first edition arrived on Tuesday & I couldn’t wait to sit down with a cup of tea & read it from cover to cover. It’s subtitled A Retrospective Literary Review & the first edition has articles on the Desert Island Discs episode from 1976 featuring Noel Streatfeild (you can listen to it here, or wherever you find your podcasts), reviews of novels set in girl’s schools that concentrate more on the teachers than the pupils; the book that changed editor Shirley Neilson’s life (it was called Shirley, Young Bookseller by Valerie Baxter!), an author spotlight on Lorna Hill, a literary trail of the Scottish Borders & a short story by D E Stevenson.