Bessie Marchant’s books are great, because her girls get to have all sorts of hair-raising adventures and never need to be rescued by boys! I was expecting this, published in 1913, to be primarily an adventure book, as most of her books are – the blurb did say “a series of adventures” – but, although it started off with our heroine saving a man from drowning, it turned out to be quite an eclectic mix of genres, with shades of Little House on the Prairie, What Katy Did and Little Women … and then a load of adventures to finish up with! There were some ridiculously far-fetched coincidences, but it was quite enjoyable, and I liked the idea of having a main character who was neither a self-confident leader, too good to be true nor in need of reform: she was nice without being annoyingly perfect, and her main fault (insofar as it was a fault) was a lack of self-confidence, which I think a lot of readers would identify with.
Heroines of adventure books usually are courageous and outgoing, but Bertha Doyne was … I was going to say a bit of a wuss, but that’d be unfair because she actually was very brave when she needed to be, just, as I’ve said above, lacking in confidence. Like Janie Temple in the La Rochelle books, she was the youngest of three sisters who’d been orphaned and left without much money. However, unlike Elizabeth and Anne Temple, the two older sisters, Anne and Hilda, had both got jobs. Bertha hung around the house, in Nova Scotia, doing the cooking and cleaning and feeling inferior (although she really wasn’t as annoying as that makes her sound), until one day she saved a man from drowning and decided that she clearly wasn’t that useless after all. But, before she could do anything about it, Anne got married and moved to Australia, Hilda went on a tour of Europe as a governess/companion, and Bertha was packed off to Manitoba to stay with a married cousin, Grace, who’d been very good to the three girls when their mother had died but now lived in the middle of nowhere and had umpteen kids.
She hadn’t been there long before Grace fell off a horse and was paralysed, which meant that Bertha had to do all the housework, look after the kids and look after Grace. Then most of their wheat, and their neighbours’ wheat, was destroyed by fire. Bertha’s heroic efforts (hooray!) to stop the spread of the fire meant that things weren’t as bad as they could have been, but Grace’s husband had to go off on an “expedition” because it paid well and they were desperate for money. And then it turned out that he’d been conned so he wasn’t going to get paid at all.
So much for an adventure novel! And Bessie Marchant’s books are usually fairly cheerful, but I was beginning to get the horrible feeling that this was going to turn into some sort of preachy religious novel, with Bertha feeling duty-bound to stay there and sacrifice herself for everyone else’s well-being, even though her eldest sister had sent the money for her to go to Australia, and Grace never complaining about what had happened to her. But it actually never got like that. It was always quite clear that Bertha was thoroughly pissed off about it all, rather than accepting it with sweet contentment, and that the disaster with the wheat wasn’t some sort of test of their spirit but a result of the farmers’ stupidity in relying solely on one crop. And Grace, whilst she didn’t complain, certainly didn’t deliver lectures on the School of Pain and the School of Love – just kept on hoping that she’d eventually recover. In the end she did. As people in books often do.
Various other things were going on too. In between the various disasters, Bertha had been trying to get some writing published – like Jo March in Little Women, although it didn’t occur to her to try writing “trash” (I do wonder what was in some of the stuff Jo wrote!) just to try to bring some money in. And, when she’d rescued the man from drowning, he’d put his coat on her to keep her warm … and she’d found a load of diamonds in the pocket! As you do. But he’d never come back for them, which was very odd. And then he’d disappeared. Also, it had transpired that Tom (Grace’s husband) had a nasty but rich old uncle, who’d just been robbed. Fancy that! Bertha had been stressing about the diamonds and returning them to the mysterious coat owner ever since she’d found them.
Then, whaddaya know, the coat owner turned up, thousands of miles from where she’d last seen him! Not only once, but twice – first, he just happened to be passing whilst the wheat was burning, and came to her assistance, and then she saved him (again) from a runaway sled in a blizzard. As you do. Only she didn’t realise who he was until it was too late – and then she decided that she’d have to ride thirty miles or so to the nearest town, and hope to catch up with him there.
But, on reaching the town, she found out that the mystery man, Edgar, was no longer there: he’d taken a job as a navvy and was miles away by then. But she was so stressed about the diamonds that she decided she’d have to go to the railway camp … but, en route, the end carriage in which she and her chaperone were travelling became uncoupled from the rest of the train, and, with nobody else seeming to notice, was left perched precariously on a rickety bridge in a gale. Ah, this was more like Bessie Marchant! The chaperone was swept out of the door by the gale, but Bertha rescued her. Hooray! And eventually they did get to the railway camp. It turned out that Edgar was not in a fact a navvy by trade, but was a nice middle-class bloke (which was a jolly good job, because Bertha really fancied him and obviously we wouldn’t have wanted her taking up with someone with no prospects) who’d been forced to work as a navvy after being wrongly accused of embezzlement. It was all happening now! But, when she tried to hand over the diamonds, he said that he knew nothing about them and had no idea how they’d got into his pocket.
Right. He then offered to escort her home, because her chaperone was too traumatised by the carriage on rickety bridge affair to travel back immediately. I’m not sure that this was very proper, but never mind. On reaching the hotel where they had to wait for the train, he found, waiting for him, a letter bringing the news that his name had been cleared. Wa-hey!! But, oh no – they also heard that everyone on Tom’s expedition had been found frozen to death. More woe! On reaching home, they found that the nasty rich uncle was there, full of contrition and offering to support Grace (who was still recovering) and the kids. Oh well, that was one thing sorted – that’d leave Bertha free to ride off into the sunset with Edgar. Er, no, sadly not. Edgar wanted to marry Bertha, obviously, but felt that he couldn’t ask her because a) he still hadn’t got any money and b) he didn’t want to ruin her writing career (he clearly hadn’t read any GO books in which married women continue to write books). And Grace couldn’t possibly accept charity from the rich old uncle, because he was nasty, so Bertha would have to stay with her. Oh dear. Oh dear indeed.
Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the nasty old uncle recognised Edgar as the man who’d robbed him – yes, of the diamonds. Of course, there was a perfectly simple explanation. They’d both been attending meetings at the same hotel, and had left their coats in the cloakroom. Obviously you’d really leave a coat with a bag of extremely valuable diamonds in the pocket in an unattended cloakroom in a public place. Edgar had picked up the wrong coat without realising it. And not noticed that there was anything in any of the pockets. Bertha handed over the diamonds … but the uncle collapsed with the shock of it all. Edgar rode post haste to get the doctor … and, en route, found a man lying collapsed in the road. It was Tom! He’d miraculously survived! Hooray!
The uncle then obligingly died, leaving the diamonds to Tom and Grace. Bertha’s book was published, Edgar got a good job, and Bertha and Edgar got married and presumably lived happily ever after. OK, OK, it was ridiculously far-fetched, but it really was quite a good read – I was genuinely quite excited as I waited to find out how Edgar had come to have the diamonds! It combined a number of different genres quite well, and Bertha made a good heroine. It’s available for free on Amazon, and I think it’s also on Project Gutenberg, and, for free, it’s certainly worth a go.