Light, charming, frothy, amusing … Guard Your Daughters is all these, but it is also a novel with a dark undertow. The five daughters of the Harvey family are amusing, witty and creative, but there are clues from the first page that something is awry. This is the opening paragraph.
I’m very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when they tell me how dull life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn’t suffer from is boredom. (1)
Note the ‘queer, and restricted’ and ‘our sort of family’ and you are set the task of wondering what is it about this family.
Guard Your Daughtersby Diana Tutton
This is a dysfunctional middle-class family living in genteel poverty, imposed by the father it turns out, in a rural area away from London. Rationing is still in force, and there are signs that the family lived at one time in more comfort, with a car, a telephone, a maintained tennis court and servants.
The reader in presented early on with the details of restrictions on visitors and the social life of the four daughters who still live at home. The father is a very successful novelist, who writes minutely plotted detective fiction. So where has the money gone?
Pandora, the eldest daughter has recently married and in her new home in London has some perspective on the Harvey household, and in particular on the lack of education for the youngest girl. She tells Morgan (the narrator)
“I realize now that we’re an odd sort of family.”
“Well of course we are.”
“But I mean – Oh, Morgan, I dowant you all to get married too!”
“Five of us? I doubt if even Mrs. Bennet managed as well as that, unless she fell back on a few parsons to help out. However, dearest, we’ll do our best.” (16)
This is not the only reference to Pride and Prejudice, and Guard Your Daughters is by no means a rewriting of that classic. Note the affection between the sisters; Morgan’s pride in the oddness of the family; Pandora’s desire to get them out. In Greek myth Pandora had a box that she opened and all kinds of evils escaped into the world.
Four daughters are still at home: Thisbe (20), Morgan (19), Cressida (18) and Teresa (15). Thisbe is a poet. Morgan plays the piano – to a mediocre standard it transpires. Cressida is the most conventional, runs a small market garden business and is the best cook. Teresa is overweight, uneducated and indulged by all.
Their mother is known to be nervy, needing special care (and soup) and frequently withdraws to her bed. Their father has only one rule in the house: do not upset your mother.
The plot moves slowly: a series of events gradually accumulate in the climax. Many of the incidents are very amusing. A young man is invited to supper, but the household does not eat supper so something has to be concocted.
We went into the larder and examined Mother’s soup. There was a jugful, meant to last her for two days, and we instantly tipped it into a saucepan and began to add to it anything we could lay our hands on – the gravy from an old stew, some vegetable water saved by thrifty Cressida, the last spoonful of Bovril and some powdered potato. It tasted quite good but there wasn’t nearly enough for eight of us. In the end we decided to use the little soup pots, and to give the full mixture only to Father, Mother and Gregory. The rest of us would have a drop or two and fill up with hot water and gravy browning. (55-56)
They decide to mark the bowls containing the full soup with a fragment of lettuce leaf.
Many of the episodes are amusing and some are pitiful, some both. Sometimes their unconventionality and naivety is charming. But they have been inculcated with the belief that they are special, in particular in their attractiveness to men. The cocktail party is an excruciating scene, as the matronly hostess wears the same dress as Thisbe and the sisters make gaffe after faux pas in ignorance.
The girls have great loyalty to each other, lending each other clothes, educating Teresa, piling into the bathroom to chatter at the end of the day. The scenes accumulate, becoming more disturbing until the shocking denouement.
While they are amusing, witty, welcoming, the daughters are without sound judgment, having been failed by their parents. (Again we can nod to the inadequate parenting skills of Mr and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.) I found this to be a convincing and disturbing novel about the dangers that lurk in families. Diana Tutton wrote two more novels, and both featured inappropriate relationships.
You can find many more reviews of Guard Your Daughters on book blogs. Some are enthusiastic and others critical. Many of them make comparisons with I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I think the family is akin to the Bretton family at Quayles in The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor.
Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton first published in 1953 and reissued by Persephone in 2017. 262pp
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