‘Well, she had everything that she had wished for on that wet February day in the library. Money, leisure to be pretty, a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much,” rest, if she ever gave herself leave to take it, and the rose garden. She had her wishes, as uncannily fulfilled as if she had been ordering her fate from a department store, and had money to pay for it.’
That may sound like an odd recipe for happiness, but, for me, The Rose Garden Husband was a particularly good choice of novel to read on a fine day in this first of June, with my roses blooming abundantly in the garden.
The novel of choice having been written in 1915, it also had fair chance of being endowed with a fairytale happy ending. And that also sounded very nice.
The book was a recent gift to me from a sweet friend who knows I like ‘old books and obscure authors’. And indeed, this writer is new to me, but I was delighted to see some lovely reviews of her work online.
Margaret Widdemer was prolific in output. Her writing career spanned from 1915 to 1968 (or so), and during this period she produced a whopping forty novels, plus many other works such as poetry (winning an early Pulitzer Prize), children’s stories, and essays. The Rose Garden Husband, published in 1915, was her first novel, and it continues to be a fan favorite.
Just say ‘Victorian era romance’, and it might bring to mind selfless heroines who go into declines, a room stuffed with horsehair sofas and stiff conversation, and, oh yes, maudlin sentiment. Widdemer’s novel brings some fresh air to this genre, and while the ending is predictable and a bit neatly packaged, it still delivers on charm and surprisingly humorous narrative. The heroine is every bit as selfless and full of New England backbone as we might have foreseen, but she is also energetic, witty, and comes with a few surprises.
‘I’d marry anything that would give me a rose garden!’
I liked this character a great deal, particularly when I read her list of things she wanted. I took a picture of the page (my copy is a 1915 reprint) because I was charmed by the neat little notes a former reader had written in to accompany the list. Likely the same former reader who had written her name ‘Harriet Rose’ in the flyleaf. Obviously, a desire for jewelry, poetry, and a plethora of shoes will charm ladies of any generation.
Phyllis’ wish for ‘Ever so many Maxfield Parrish pictures full of Prussian blue skies’, and ‘A room big enough to put all father’s books up’ resonated with me.
Phyllis Harrington gets all this and more, though in the beginning she had only wished for a rose garden with a gentleman husband she wouldn’t have to ‘have any association with’.
She laughs at herself for this wish, however, and pulls herself together from her reverie. (Phyllis does not go into declines but she does go into reveries now and again.)
This sweet story is all about wish fulfillment, but there is an amusing curiosity not lost on the modern reader. Volumes of feminist erudition have been written on the plight of a young woman’s prospects in the fiction of Jane Austen and others of her era and beyond. To marry was a career move, and often the only way to advance in one’s life.
“Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.” ― Jane Austen
Margaret Widdemer puts it baldly in this story, and in more modern terms—Marriage is a job opportunity.
In the narrative, Phyllis has resigned herself to becoming a careworn spinster. Although she loves her career as a librarian, she has no time for social outings or opportunities to meet men. She also sees no way out of her constrained circumstances in life.
“I’m just a battered bisque doll!” she repeated to herself, bitterly.
(This struck me as a bit odd, to tell the truth, as Phyllis, though tired much of the time in the beginning, is described as very pretty with masses of honey blonde hair…more of ‘a pretty bisque figurine’ than a ‘battered bisque doll’, the author wants us to know… surely someone would have noticed her getting on or off the trolley on her way to and from work? Men are so resourceful that way… I would think potential suitors would have been lining up at the library feigning an interest in Modern Literature.)
A visit from a lawyer friend, Mr. De Guenther, sets the stage for a surprising offer for Phyllis.
“I have—we have—a little matter of business to discuss with you tomorrow night, my dear; an offer, I may say, of a different line of work…” [Mr. De Guenther hems and haws around the matter for a bit more, finally concluding, inconclusively: ]“Because the line of work which I wish, or rather my wife wishes, to lay before you is—is a very different line of work!”
The Different Line of Work, as Phyllis comes to realize, is a proposition of marriage from a future-mother-in-law, who is dying. The marriage, as old Mrs. Harrington hopes, will secure the compassionate care of her invalid son after she is gone. Phyllis may have only five or so years of ‘work’, supervising Allan Harrington’s care; then, it being likely he will die by that time, Phyllis will inherit the plump retirement of his entire fortune.
From rags to riches, from spinster to bride. From tweeds to satin, from sturdy librarian’s brogues to satin slippers. A career move, indeed.
Phyllis—a practical girl who is organized and makes lists—has few reservations. Likely she will need to interact with him very little, he has a fleet of servants and caregivers; her only responsibility is to see that they all do their job. Her career as the serious Miss Braithwaite, “Assistant for the Children’s Department, Greenway Branch, City Public Library“, with a background as manager of the Circulation and Cataloguing Departments, has equipped her admirably for this job.
‘It feels partly like going into a nunnery and partly like going into a fairy story,’ she said to herself.’
And what of Allan Harrington, the invalid with a death wish who is about to become the hero of the story?
The ‘scientific’ explanation of his condition, as expressed in 1915, was this:
“You see, it was found that the shock to the nerves, acting on an already over-keyed mind and body, together with some spinal blow concerning which the doctors are still in doubt, had affected Allan’s powers of locomotion.”
Ah, we get it. His paralysis isn’t an inability to walk. He just has no incentive. He wants to die. But Allan is about to meet his new incentive, and find his ‘powers of locomotion’ are capable of being revived.
Phyllis first meets Allan in his darkened sickroom. Her impression is:
‘A Crusader on a tomb. Yes, he looked like that. In the room’s half-dusk the pallor of his still….face and his long, clear-cut hands was nearly the same as the whiteness of the couch draperies. His hair, yellow-brown and waving, flung back from his forehead like a crest, and his dark brows and lashes made the only note of darkness about him.’
In spite of his obvious invalidism and tremulous voice, Phyllis finds him quite beautiful as a man.
‘Somehow she could not think of Allan Harrington’s dying. He was too beautiful to be dead, where nobody could see him any more….He must have been delightful,” she thought, “when he was alive!”
You might guess what is about to happen. We know it as soon as she sees him, and the next scene has her out shopping with Mrs. De Guenther buying:
‘… a heavenly white crepe thing with rosy ribbons and filmy shadow-laces—the negligee of one’s dreams.’
Oh, yes. Phyllis has plans. Plans that involve ‘a heavenly white crepe thing’. Her dream of a rose garden is about to come true, but that dream of ‘a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much”—? Dashed forever.
Oh yes, good things happen in this story. Good things delightfully told.
Many of Margaret Widdemer’s books are available as ebooks, or can be read online. Other than that, I don’t know if she is actually ‘in print’, except perhaps print on demand copies.
I enjoyed Jane’s review of this book; as usual she describes the story in thoughtful detail, and I love her comment: ‘If you’d like to be captivated, if you have an uncynical heart that needs lifting…this is the book for you.’
I can only add to that it is nice to read a book that highlights unselfishness and kindness in people.
A nice article here, that gives us more insight into the character of Widdemer via her poetry–Read more about Margaret Widdemer as a poet here (Widdemer was one of the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry before it was known as the Pulitzer Prize)
For a possible likeness of the ‘Crusader on a tomb’ here is a fascinating account of one–and this particular knight ended up in New York at the Met Cloisters, oddly enough…but I’m thinking that Margaret actually saw this knight (a year before she published this book in 1915) and was taken by his quiet strength in death’s repose, for the website of the Cloisters gives us this tidbit on the history of the collection:
‘Much of the sculpture at The Met Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), a prominent American sculptor, and an avid collector and dealer of medieval art. Barnard opened his original Cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue to the public in 1914.’