Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton
The first of the autumn/winter Persephone books this year is the 1953 novel Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton, which is a return to the hot-water-bottle texts that Persephone became so well loved for. But it's not an entirely comfortable read.
While in one sense, Guard Your Daughters is a gentle read where nothing spectacular happens, in another sense it is also a stifflingly claustrophobic text where the face-value peculiarities of the Harvey sisters are peeled away to reveal a deeply dysfunctional, isolated and unhappy family.
Interestingly, instead of Persephone's usual habit for commissioning a foreword to introduce the book, in this instance they have instead offered at the end a very mixed bag of existing reviews for the book: some of which adore it, while others detest it with a passion that seems extraordinary for a mere novel. But of course, there is nothing 'mere' about a novel.
Our protagonist Morgan Harvey is the middle sister in a secluded country family with five daughters. Their father is a talented and successful author, but their mother is an emotionally fragile and delicate character who is prone to hysteria, sobbing and wilting if she doesn't get her way or, worse, one of her daughters shows signs of independence. It is clear from the off that there is a deep secret lurking in the background of this family to explain Mrs Harvey's possessive behaviour, and it is the desire to uncover this oft-hinted secret that keeps the reader feverishly turning pages.
It is strange that Guard Your Daughters is such a compulsive page-turner given that really nothing happens until the end. The body of the book consists of the sisters dreaming about meeting men, or attending a French lesson in a convent, or taking tea in the local cafe. But such is the reader's desperation to know what the family secret is that you rapidly keep turning the pages. I dreamt up such fanciful excuses for Mrs Harvey and such florid reasons for her extreme behaviour that I admit I felt a little let down by the real ending. But I won't give anything more away on that note.
All I will say is that while Guard Your Daughters is a strange but enjoyable little novel, I did find its attitude to mental health rather infuriating. Although I suspect this has a lot to do with the era in which it was written, and had Diana Tutton written the text now she may have approached things differently.
It is lovely to see Persephone back publishing hot-water-bottle-esque books, and I hope there are many more in this mould to come. It's a long time since I read a book as heart-warming as their Miss Ranskill Comes Home, Miss Buncle's Book or any of the Dorothy Whipples (although I believe one of the spring/summer 2018 Persephones will be the final Whipple available to republish. What a treat!).