Friday, April 22, 2016

The Rose-Garden Husband by Margaret Widdemer

I had a toughish week last week. Nothing particularly bad: just a frantic weekend leading to a week of feeling sleep-deprived and creatively drained at the same time that I needed to get about eleventy thousand things done. You know the kind.

At the time I didn't particularly feel in need of a literary confection since I'm reading Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset and it's pretty much making my year. All the same, the amiable Ness Kingsley had recommended it, and it seemed like a sweet read, so I dashed off and downloaded Margaret Widdemer's 1915 novel The Rose-Garden Husband from Project Gutenberg.

Meet Phyllis Braithwaite! Orphaned and alone in the world, Phyllis enjoys her job working with children at the city library--but despite her cheerful outlook, she can't help knowing that she's lonely, overworked, and just one serious illness away from losing her only source of livelihood. After a chance meeting with a girl from her hometown, Phyllis wishes impulsively to have a wealthy husband and a rose-garden. Little does she expect to see her wish come true in the shape of a very peculiar job offer.

Wealthy Mrs Harrington knows she is dying, but worries that her son--invalided years ago in a terrible motoring accident--won't be taken care of when she's gone. Accordingly, she asks Phyllis to marry him and nurse him after her death. Phyllis agrees because she knows she needs the rest and the money. But she never expects to fall right into a sweet old-fashioned romance with her new patient.

Naturally, this book is kind of low on realism, from the preposterous premise to the oh-so-perfect ending, and the plot and themes have the substance of fairy floss. It is a vintage romance, after all, and I knew what I was getting into. That said, I can't begin to tell you what a delightful time I had reading it. It was half-an-hour curled up in a patch of winter sunshine. It was a very small kitten having a nap on your lap. It was a nice hot cup of tea with a dash of honey.

It was a few brief moments of grace in the middle of a hard and frantic week.

Part of the book's appeal was its very wholesome tone. Margaret Widdemer's story is uncomplicated and light, but it had a right-way-up view of the world. I liked how honest the story was about how hard it is to have a life when you're working fulltime, and how unsatisfying that can be--for a domestically-inclined woman especially.

Then, part of the book's appeal was simply the romantic wish-fulfilment. And no matter how wholesome they might be, I've never been a big consumer of fluffy romance novels. I think of them as the confections of a literary diet, and try to balance them out with a steady diet of nutritious books, non-fiction as well as fiction. And if I'd read The Rose-Garden Husband any other week of the year, you probably wouldn't be hearing about it today. But here's the thing.

Hard work is an important part of the Christian life. But so is rest and celebration. You can work yourself too hard. You can heap too much on your plate. You can fail to take Sabbaths. You can develop a soul so ascetic and high-minded and austere that you lose all contact with the humility of grace.

To all things there is a season. Even, every now and then, a season for fluffy comfort reads.

Find The Rose-Garden Husband at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.


Jamie W. said...

This is very true. I also think that recognizing the value and place of activities we tend to view as frivolous helps us take them seriously, in their own way, and therefore avoid letting them go to waste. Even in the realm of "candy floss" books, as you've pointed out, some contribute to a God-directed whole of life and some do not. And in my experience, when I think of them as something worthless that I'm just doing because I'm too tired to do anything worthwhile, I don't pay attention to what kind of person they are trying to make me. But when I say "Now I will rest because I am a human and I need rest," I'm motivated to choose something that--while maybe lightweight--does me good.

In other words: what you've said in this post is important.

Joseph J said...

Very true Jamie.

My favorite anime director Hayao Miyazaki once said that if it weren't for the invention of anime, asians would all have suffered nervous breakdowns by now because of the hectic nature of modern life. Coming from a man who is very ambivalent about the quality of pop culture and his own chosen medium, it was a humble admission of the simple usefulness of 'escapist' entertainment. Leisure is necessary for a happy and healthy human life.

I also just watched a remarkable documentary called Chuck Norris vs. Communism that underscores the point. It is about the people who smuggled American films into communist Romania, and copied and dubbed them in very poor quality. They were treated like water to a starving people, because the Romanians at the time lived a dreary, joyless life of work, mitigated only by propaganda and entertainment mutilated by official censors. It is remarkable to witness how much silly Hollywood films meant to them. One man said that it was pretty much the only thing that kept people going. The lady who famously dubbed nearly all the films herself at great personal risk explained her actions by simply saying, 'People need stories.'

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate that I found this book for free on Amazon. All you have to have is an account with them & a registered device. For those of us who are not 'techies' it makes things easier.

Thanks for your review!


Lisa S said...

I was really in need of some fluff after a few months of Shakespeare, Churchill and Tolstoy. Great timing. I downloaded and read this yesterday on your suggestion. It was fun if improbable, and just what I needed. It kept making me think of The Secret Garden. And I'm going to suggest a couple other books that are in a similar vein that I stumbled across awhile back when I was needing the same change. I happen to think they're considerably better and much more believable. The author is Grace Smith Richmond and my two favorites were Under the Country Sky and The Twenty Fourth of June, Midsummer's Day. Free on Amazon. I didn't check Project Gutenberg. Happy reading! (And oh my goodness...aren't the Barset Chronicles wonderful!

Suzannah said...

Jamie, YES - I've noticed that that goes for fiction as a whole. If you have a low view of it you're unlikely to get the good from it that it was designed to give. Fluffy romance is a tricky topic because so many people read nothing else - but it's like takeaway food: sometimes really, really important.

Joseph, that is fascinating. Another example of the need for Sabbaths in cultures that by and large don't have them. And I'm also a fan of Miyazaki :).

Goldnrod, glad you were able to find it there :).

Lisa, you know, I was definitely thinking this book was similar to Grace S Richmond! I actually read and reviewed THE TWENTY FOURTH OF JUNE a few years ago! I've always meant to go on and read more of her books, just never got around to it!

Lisa S said...

Oh my! Now that I think about it, I believe you were the reason I read Richmond in the first place. I had completely forgotten how that came about. How funny. Well then...good job and carry on!

Suzannah said...

:D Glad to have introduced you to her!

Sumaya Paruk said...

Hi there!
I love reading fluffy books... It's a great escape ;)
I stumbled upon this post after searching for "books like The Rose Garden Husband". It's really awesome that I'm not the only weird one reading such old novels (yes, most people find it strange considering the vast selection available of new releases). So as I mentioned above I'm really feeling like reading a book similar to this one. Any suggestions? :)

Suzannah said...

Hi Sumaya! Yes, I started this blog because it was so difficult to find a place to discuss my favourite old-fashioned books. I can certainly recommend a few other authors to try if you liked this one. Margaret Widdemer apparently wrote some more books than this one, and you'll probably also enjoy Grace S Richmond or Florence L Barclay, both available at Project Gutenberg for free :). Enjoy!


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