Monthly Archives: June 2015
So, from what I can tell, cool, hip, and sophisticated fiction readers detest Grace Livingston Hill.
Her writing is “cheesy,” they say. “Saccharine.” “Formulaic.” “Goody Two-Shoes.”
Well, for once I’m really, really glad that few people can ever accuse me of being cool, hip, or sophisticated. Because I’ve only recently discovered this writer, beloved by thousands– whose heyday of popularity peaked nearly a century ago–and I can’t seem to get enough. She’s like crack cocaine for the vintage soul.
Banging around in the Christian publishing arena as I have, I’ve been hearing the name Grace Livingston Hill for years and years, but have steered clear because of negative impressions like those above. Among the cognoscenti, her name is often accompanied by a lifted eyebrow, a slight sneer, as if to say Good thing we’ve evolved beyond all that wholesome stuff.
But recently I chanced upon “Happiness Hill,” written in 1932. So, I like reading stories set the early 20th century, which is also my favorite time period to write about. Maybe I could pick up a pointer or two about what life was like back then. In an idle moment, I opened the cover (okay, I’ll grant that the cover is a little cheesy, from a 1972 reprint–but then the 1970s were pretty much hideous all around, so there’s that) and started reading.
One chapter later, I set it down. A lump had formed in my throat. An actual lump. What was that all about?
In the story, a young, single businesswoman named Jane Arleth has cut her vacation short to return home because her family needs her.
Now, first of all, the very idea astonished me. What? No indignant insistence on her inalienable right to “me-time?” No disdain for her family for being a burden, for cramping her style? No cries of “but what about me-e-e-e-e? At twenty-three years old, I’m still just a kid!” No, siree. She simply packs her little valise and catches the train home.
And the descriptions! As the train leaves the station, Jane notices “the winding mountain road, fern-fringed and enticing, climbing back out of sight into the cool upward shadowed curves. Beyond and above, there would be the glimmer of the lake sparkling like a sheet of sapphire in the morning sunlight, tilting the canoes that rocked and lapped along its edges, slapping the sides of the larger boats anchored a little way out, bearing softly on its blue bosom the flock of white sails that a little later in the morning would be curvetting and billowing in the wind across the little island.”
What? Hello! Where have you been all my life?
“There would be cool blue shadows on the north porch, where the pines were thickest about the hotel, a wonderful spot to come with a book before the young world generally was astir. There would be the aroma of coffee, honeydew melons and toast, hot rolls just out of the oven, and a hint of brook trout frying in deep fat.”
Where do I sign up?
And then there’s the faith element. Many (most?) of her characters are unabashedly Christian in a way that would get them ridiculed by sophisticates today.
“She had awakened early before anyone had seemed be astir, reached from the bed to the little table where she had laid her Bible the night before, and lay there reading, beginning at the first of Genesis and taking the story of the universe as if it were all entirely new to her.”
She lays there reading, happily, until her friend comes to fetch her for breakfast.
“What on earth do you find so interesting?” demanded Carol lazily as Jane laid the handsome bound volume on the table. “The Bible! Why, Jane Arleth! You don’t meant to tell me you have turned saint!”
“. . . [A] slow color stole into [Jane’s] cheeks and a feeling akin to shame came over her. Had there been a tinge of sarcasm in Carol’s voice as she said that about being a saint, a curl of mockery on the lovely lips?”
*sigh* The more things change . . .
Please indulge my latest literary crush. I’ll be posting quotes of hers from time to time, as they capture my fancy, and perhaps commenting on the differences between Then and Now.
If you’re a fan of Grace Livingston Hill, I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorites among her stories?
If you have no idea who she is, check your local library or thrift store.
And if you don’t like her at all . . . well, you’re welcome to say so, of course, but I may just have to lift my chin and speak cordially but coolly to you.
Which is exactly what Jane Arleth would do.
I’m not sure exactly when the societal shift took place, but nowadays it no longer seems possible to discuss opposing ideas without red-faced rage, acrimony, and ad hominem attacks. Ashamedly capable of a good rant myself, I’m trying to discipline myself not to feed the beast. In the quest of being “informed,” I found myself reading way too much news, listening to way too many snarky podcasts, and visiting way too many inflammatory blogs.
I scaled back. A lot. Now I hope to remain informed enough so that my head is neither filled with air nor stuck in the sand, but not so “informed” that I am absorbing negativity and vitriol through every pore. This is a tough balance to maintain.
In The Modern Handbook for Girls (1933), Olive Richards Landers writes, “[One] thing that helps give us emotional balance is to let our admirations govern us, rather than our disgusts. Some girls seem to think it gives them distinction and an air of discrimination to ‘loathe’ this and ‘despise’ that. It is in better taste, and shows a finer spirit, to dismiss from thoughts and conversation what is loathsome and despicable, displacing it with what you can admire.”
I’ll leave you with some wise words written by that doyenne of charm, Margery Wilson, back in 1928:
“The best explanation of your standards is your own life. The way you live and conduct yourself bespeaks your opinions more loudly than anything you can say. If you are fine you can afford to be charitable toward those who are not. One can always say, ‘Perhaps we do not know all the facts.’ Or, ‘There may be extenuating circumstances.’ . . . A good blanket remark that covers all inharmonious gossip or discord without offense to either side is, ‘It is certainly most unfortunate.’ And you will have spoken the truth. It is not only unfortunate that human beings should err, but even more unfortunate that other human beings cannot be more kind.
“A woman astonished me the other day by saying that she did a great deal of good in the world by telling people exactly what she thought of them. Her mouth was a thin, indignant line. Her movements were jerky little stabs of outraged righteousness. I have no doubt that she does some good, but her method is so faulty as to make the effect on others temporary to the point of hypocrisy. And just see what she is doing to herself! The lasting influence of a constructive approach to the problems and faults of others makes it the only logical one.”
You be constructive out there!
Antiques* stores hurt my heart–in a good way. As much as I love browsing their musty, dusty interiors in search of treasures large and small, I almost invariably come across something that makes my chest squeeze tight, which sounds painful and sort of is, but not really. I catch my breath. swallow hard, blink, and try to look normal, hoping the clerk won’t think the customer in the ladies’ accessories aisle is having a heart attack. She’s not. She’s just having a nostalgia attack over an embroidered handkerchief.
It could be anything that sets me off–a glass snow globe, a teddy bear, a lamp that reminds me of Grandma. I never know, never see when or if it’s coming, which is part of the fun of antiquing–getting blindsided by misty watercolor memories, dreams, and yearnings.
Antiques stores help me unwind and forget (at least temporarily) my cares by drawing me into a world completely different from my own. Often this makes me appreciate my own that much more (chamber pots, anyone?). Sometimes I mourn the things we have lost, or that are increasingly hard to come by. Fine stationery and elegant pens from when people had the time and inclination to write real letters. Hand-sewn, knitted, and crocheted items that someone took the time to create instead of “finding them cheaper” at a chain store. Vinyl or shellac recordings of dance music from an era before anyone had ever heard the word “twerk” and when being asked to dance gave you an adrenaline rush like nobody’s business. Dishes and silverware and gravy boats (gravy boats!) from when families made the time and effort to sit down together at mealtime instead of passing fast-food bags around the minivan. Dolls dressed as belles of the ball instead of Bratz. Such items hurt my heart because they represent a world that is gone, or quickly going, and I can’t seem to hold onto it. Hard as I try, it eludes my grasp like vapor. And the worst is when I feel like the only person on earth left who gives a whistle. (Whistles, see toy section.) Obviously I’m not, since antiques stores abound, but it can feel that way sometimes, like everyone else can’t wait to gallop forth into the Next Big Thing while I’m saying “Wait! But…gingham aprons! But…rhinestone-encrusted owl pins! But…ceramic mixing bowls that held the batter of a thousand pancakes!”
And don’t get me started on the photographs. People sat for those photographs, and had prints made, and passed them around and exclaimed over them, and they were special and expensive and rare, unlike the there-and-gone images we send each other on Instagram and Facebook. That photo of a son or daughter, a husband or wife, was once a great treasure. And now here they are, gathering dust in an antiques store, flipped through by strangers like me who giggle over the fashions and hairstyles but know absolutely nothing about the people in them, or the stories behind them.
Oh, the stories! For a writer, everything in an antiques store holds a story, or a potential story. Every. Darn. Object. No wonder that by the time I tear myself away, I feel simultaneously exhilarated and completely wrung-out. (Wringer washers, try the housewares section.)
If cheerfully going through the wringer sounds like fun to you, check antiques.com for a dealer near you. And get ready for the routine: Squeeze, breathe, swallow, blink, smile.
(*I debated whether the correct term is “antiques stores” or “antique stores.” I decided that the former describes a store that sells antiques, while the latter describes a store that is itself antique, like stumbling upon a hardware store in some small town, complete with wooden floor, glass jars filled with metal doodads, the scent of sawdust and machine oil, and the creaky voice of an old-timer who knows how to use every tool known to mankind and is happy to tell you about it. The store has been at the same location for so long, it still has a cast-iron hitching post out front. Stepping through the door (complete with jaunty bell at the top, natch) is like stepping back a century, like the Brigadoon of retail. Just the thought of such a store makes me want to weep, and I don’t even like hardware. )