Wednesday 24 October 2012

Guard Your Daughters

My copy has no dust jacket, and is plain red,
with no title on the cover, which doesn't make
for a good picture, so here is a nicer cover!
I'm very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when the tell me how dull my life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, I suppose, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the thing our sort of family doesn't suffer from is boredom

I think I'll start with the afternoon when I introduced Gregory to the family. I'd been into Wools for the rations, and I took a short cut home across the Common, that had seemed so big and wild when we were children. It had a few patches of ling, and used to play the part of the Heather when we were being Alan Breck and David.

I just love the opening to Guard Your Daughters, by Diana Tutton, especially that second paragraph. You know you are in the presence of a pretty special writer, who not only pays tribute to Stevenson, but creates a landscape and plants to stand in for wild Scottish moorland in a game of make believe.Who else would do that? And in just a few words she manages to tell you so much about the Harvey family.

Everyone else who read this (thanks to a recommendation from Simon at Stuck in a Book) seems to have already reviewed it, and since it's been universally praised, I feel anything I say only repeats what has already been written. But that's not going to stop me from having a go! According to Simon, if you like Dodie Smith's 'I capture the Castle' then you will like this, and I do, and I did (if you see what I mean). It's way up there on my best books of the year: amusing, literate, well written, witty, warm - and ever so slightly off-kilter. There's a dark edge here that is not immediately apparent.

It's set in the late 1940s, or early fifties – butter and eggs, which they buy 'illicitly' from the farm, were still rationed when the book was first published in 1953. The Harveys are one of those middle-class families who seem to have fallen on hard times and now live in self-imposed exile from the rest of society, whilst maintaining their superior taste and intelligence. They live in genteel poverty, leading a somewhat eccentric life in a rambling old house which is falling into disrepair. That may make them sound rather horrid, but the five daughters of the house are absolutely delightful.

And another one...
Pandora, Thisbe, Morgan (who is writing the story and is called after Morgan La Fée) and Cressida were named by their mother, whose mental state seems to be very fragile. Teresa, the youngest, was named by Father, because Mother was tired by that stage. Only Pandora, the eldest, has escaped their enclosed life: after a whirlwind romance she is now living in London, married to a man she met at Sunday School. The others seem happy with their lot – apart from Cressida, who grows vegetables, does most of the cooking, and yearns for normality. Thisbe, who is rather waspish, wants to be a poet, Morgan hopes to be a concert pianist, and Teresa doesn't know what she wants to do. She appears far younger than today's 15-year-olds (how the world has changed) but is precociously well read.

I thought the relationship between the girls was really well done -Tutton was spot on with her description of the the bickering and sniping that goes on (sister talk, as my own daughters always tell me) but at the same time they are very supportive of each other, and they do have a lot of fun.
Father is an author: not just any old author, but the 'only, really, great, detective writer there has ever been'. However, he is famously reclusive, for when he is not writing he is totally wrapped up in ensuring his wife's comfort and well-being. He has little time left for the girls, and their world is centred on their home. Visits, and visiting, are frowned upon. They've never been to school, although at some stage in the past there was a governess, appear to have no friends of their own age, and few opportunities for meeting young men.

But there is Gregory, who is totally overwhelmed by the sisters when his car breaks down outside their home and they invite him in. He is obviously surprised by Mother's snowboots, 'huge things of black cloth and rubber to pull on over our shoes', her wet stockings steaming by the fire – and by the girls themselves. While he is there Thisbe, clad in eye-catching tight ski-ing trousers, proceeds to do the ironing (including a 'dreadful torn pair of cami-knickers'), and as he leaves he bumps into the grandfather clock, the door opend, and dozens of wet stockings fall out. On his return visit there's an equally hilarious scene as Thisbe desperately tries to pull metal wavers from her hair, without being the noticed.

And there is journalist Patrick True who, strikes up conversation with Morgan and Teresa in a cafe, visits the family at home, encourages the girls' to tell him tales of family life – but fails to explain until much later that he wants to publish an article about their father.

And another!
The girls' seclusion is brought about by their mother's delicate condition. She mustn't be upset, or she will be ill again – and it seems she is upset by any attempt at independence on the part of of her daughters, or any intrusion from the outside world. She may be obsessively over-protective, and fear for their safety if they are away from home or exposed to outside influences, but it is her own safety and comfort that she is interested in. As the novel progressed I began to wonder if she is mad, or manipulative. Her condition seems to work to her advantage. When she doesn't want to do something she takes to her bed; she has the best of everything, and everyone falls in with her wishes. She really is a monster, and it's hard to know if her the Harvey daughters should be protected from the outside world – or their parents.

My copy of the book was published by The Reprint Society in 1954, and seems to have faded from view fairly quickly. 'Guard Your Daughters' is a forgotten book by a forgotten author: I couldn't find any information about Diana Tutton, but she deseves to be better known, and there must be some publisher out there prepared to reissue this wonderful novel - it would fit very nicely into the Persephone canon of work.


  1. Oh goody! I have been waiting for this, since you mentioned that you'd read it, and what a lovely review. I'm so pleased that people have been enjoying this joy of a book. I'm already looking forward to re-reading it!