The Tall Stranger (book #151)

D E Stevenson, 1957.

There’s something oddly plot-resistant, slice-of-life-ish, about Stevenson. Makes it difficult to describe her books. In this one, not one of her best but not awful either, the viewpoint starts as that of Nell, a doctor’s secretary, on a foggy London evening. Nell wants to visit her friend in hospital and the doctor goes with her in case she gets lost. In fact they both get lost and attacked by some muggers. Nell, having taken some ju-jitsu lessons, breaks the arm of one of the muggers (the doctor and the policeman don’t believe that this is possible).

All that is preparatory to the real story, which is about Barbie, the friend Nell visits in hospital. The book drifts along, with Barbie convalescing with the aunt who brought her up, becoming unsatisfactorily engaged and meeting another man. Then she goes back to work as an interior designer and the book follows her on a work trip to a Scottish castle, where the second man pops up again. There’s quite a lot of detail about the interior design work in the castle (measuring, fake leather screens, pattern-books). There’re subplots (if that’s the right word given the book’s lack of plot) about two children, a neglected London child and the running-wild daughter of the castle.

As always, Stevenson’s views are mostly conservative. There’s an interesting exchange between Barbie and her aunt, Amalie:

” …Of course it’s the fashion nowadays to sneer at the British Empire – but what would the world be like today if there never had been a British empire?”
“A good deal less civilised for one thing,” said Barbie after a few moments’ thought.
“Yes,” agreed Amalie. “It’s an interesting speculation.” She laughed and added, “I once asked a very clever young man (one of Edward’s Oxford friends who thought he knew everything) what the world would be like today if there never had been a British Empire, and it sort of dried him up. He just gulped and said it was an interesting speculation.”
“I must remember that; it might be useful,” said Barbie.
“You must remember to look rather stupid when you put the question,” Amalie told her. “I mean you must look as if you were terribly anxious to know. It works much better that way.”

This is obviously a criticism of liberal and post-colonial thought, but it’s also, and more interestingly, a suggestion of how women might stand up to “clever young men … who think they know everything”; looking stupid is worth it if it leaves the man speechless.

I’m a bit worried about the treatment of the London child, Agnes. She’s eight and lives in a flat in the same building as Barbie and Nell. Her mother, Gloria-everyone-calls-me-Glore, “‘neglects Agnes and – and shows her quite clearly that she’s a nuisance'”. Nell’s fiancé, Dr Headfort, tells Nell

” … I think I could arrange for her to be put into a Home. Of course I’m not particularly keen on putting children into Institutions, but the Home I know about is in the country and there’s an exceedingly nice matron. It might be better for her than her present mode of life.”
“Almost anything would be better!” [Nell]
“Or we could adopt her ourselves,” added Will Headfort, throwing out his amazing suggestion in a casual manner.
“Oh Will, you are good!” exclaimed Nell in astonishment. She pondered the matter and then continued, “Of course we should have to think about it very seriously. She isn’t a very attractive child – poor little scrap – but I dare say she would improve. … “

Instead, however, Barbie arranges for Agnes to be sent to Scotland to live with the family at the castle and be company for Bet. Her mother is shown as selfish and easy to persuade that it will be less trouble for her to get rid of her daughter. She wants to go to take Agnes to the castle herself and meet the family, but is firmly told by Barbie that “‘If Mrs. Scott had wanted you to go to Oddam [castle] she would have invited you'”. So Agnes is taken on the long railway journey by a servant whom she hasn’t met before, whose Scottish accent may be difficult for her to understand.

Barbie also makes Agnes over before sending her to Scotland, as she’s worried about how Agnes’s shabby, dirty and rather common clothes will appear to the Scott family. Instead of her yellow cloth coat with a missing button, her lacy blue satin dress and shoes with holes in, Barbie buys her “cherry-coloured shorts and a white pullover, brown leather lacing-shoes and white socks; she bought a brown tweed coat and a cherry-coloured beret and some much-needed underwear”. For some reason, Barbie finds Agnes’s “dark hair, scraped back from her forehead and tied in a ‘pony tail’ with an old piece of ribbon – a most unsuitable style of hair-dressing for a little girl”. Barbie “whirled Agnes into the nearest hairdresser and had the absurd pony-tail cut off and the dark hair trimmed closely to what proved to be an exceedingly well-shaped head”. This makes Agnes cry. She then “put Agnes into the bath, scrubbed her all over thoroughly and washed her hair”.

Although one can see the appeal of transforming the child for her new life, and Agnes does smile when she sees what she looks like, I do feel some concern for her going hundreds of miles from home without anyone she knows and without apparently anything to remind her of her previous life and family, even her own appearance.

I was amused by the “black plastic tray with a crisply-ironed tray-cloth” on which Barbie’s meals are brought when she’s convalescing. Height of technology and fashion.

Haing said Stevenson tends to be conservative, in this book Barbie’s fiancé wants her to continue her work as an interior designer: “‘It’s your Thing … You love the work and you’re very good at it … and somehow I can’t imagine you sitting at home, idle. You wouldn’t be happy.'”

As I’m reading Stevenson in tandem with Patricia Wentworth, I was interested to see three of Wentworth’s books in the same large print series advertised at the back of this book – Out of the Past, Latter End and Danger Point.

Re the ju-jitsu, it’s interesting that this is also a plot point in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s The Wrong Chalet School, from 1952, just a few years earlier.

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