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.