Here’s my second book for my reading challenge this month: Dean Street December. You can find the main post here where we’re building up a nice number of reviews during the month and you can see this post for all the detail. This is another of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint books and the other one Emma gave me for Christmas last year (for those who like to keep count, I’ve now read four of the books in this pile, and should get another three done this month).

Molly Clavering – “Dear Hugo”

(25 December 2021, from Emma)

“You’ve nothing to wish for? You have everything you want?” She stared t me. Then her vivid face sobered. “Or there’s nothing you could get just by wishing?” she ended.

How could a young creature like that guess such a thing, unless through her own experience? Yes she seemed so untouched by sorrow of any kind … We stood there for a moment with the coloured leaves dropping gently, inexorable about us, until suddenly she laughed, and the spell was broken.

“What babies we are, to imagine that a dead leaf could make a wish come true!” she cried. “If we don’t hurry there will be no sloes left for us to pick!” (p. 44)

An epistolary novel, don’t you know – the Dear Hugo of the title being the man to whom our heroine, Sara Monteith, is addressing long letters. Hugo is the brother of Sara’s by now long-dead fiancĂ©, Ivo, who died during World War Two – the book is set in 1951-53 so it’s a decade ago. Hugo lives in Africa, which does lead to a few unfortunate sentences about his servants and superstitions which we wouldn’t write these days and needs noting but doesn’t spoil the book, and Sara has just moved to a small cottage in the Scottish Borders village of Ravenskirk. What she doesn’t let on to anyone local is that she has chosen this location because Ivo and Hugo spent a lot of time there as children, and there might be people around who remember them.

Sara is quiet and reticent: so much so that the odd plot point gets mentioned in retrospect rather than report! Lest Sara be alone in cottage in her 40s, she’s given first a bustling set of neighbours, some lovely, some less so – the usual village novel characters of the demanding and judgemental older woman and the flighty woman led astray feature, as well as worth-their-weight-in-gold slightly comedy “helps – and a young boy, a second cousin, who’s thrust upon her but gives colour and humour (don’t worry: he’s not nearly as annoying as Tony Morland from Angela Thirkell!).

There are light romances and also darker moments and shade to bring them into relief: Sara of course has her sorrow and she meets sympathetic characters like the one in the quote above, and there’s a moral centre to the novel which allows for single motherhood kindly but wants to instill values of decency.

I don’t think his Christmasses have been very exciting up to date, and I want this one to be complete for him, not only with parties and a wee tree and presents, but with the Christmas day services as well. I want to lay the sort of foundation for Atty that will comfort and help him in years to come when he has his own memories and losses … (p. 63)

And I really think that Clavering is very brave in the outcome of her novel – several things start to look like they’re going to happen which you want to happen … but will they come out as you hope and think? Hm. But also: wonderful!

A quick edit to add a bit I forgot in my original review: I remember when the Queen passed away Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow saying that she was a last link back to these books so many of us love, and here is her coronation, of course, as well as the death of the King. The singing of “God Save the Queen” in the novel brought a mist to this not-really-royalist at all eye!

What an excellent, read – the setting is beautifully described, too, there are nice touches like the pink and gold Dresden china cups which also appeared in “Near Neighbours“, and I feel like this will be a comfort read with a strong centre and a bite to it for years to come now.

This was Book 2 in my Dean Street December challenge.