Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sweet Picture of an Army Wife

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson is a sentimental period-piece, set in rural England and Scotland between the wars. The story is told entirely through diary entries in the journal of an Army wife as she copes with the vicissitudes of managing the help, raising her children, and supporting her husband, an officer in an Amy regiment, with his official duties.

The catastrophes of daily life that Mrs. Tim Christie (Hester) encounters are mild things, used chiefly as a way to point out the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the people around her. They begin with the demands of moving house from England to "the wilds of Scotland". The rental house they have leased fully furnished must be restored to its original splendor, leaving Hester hunting frantically for an aspidistra that once decorated a table in the front hall.

In the middle of replacing dishes and drapes, and packing their own goods, Hester and Tim are summoned to a dinner party with Major Morley, whose father is wealthy and not totally approving of the young friends his son has made in regimental pursuits. Mrs. Tim's journal reveals the jockeying for social position she observes, as well as the maneuvers for position in the regiment, with Captain Tim hoping for an eventual promotion to Major.
If we don’t have troubles sent us we can generally make them for ourselves...
Scotland is a new experience for the young wife. Her son Bryan has been packed off to school, but her daughter's nanny has given notice just before the trip. The locals are stand-offish, because "Army people will be gone again in a scant three years." Still, she makes a friend of the next-door neighbor, and manages to scandalize the man next door by leaning out the bedroom window in her night attire.
The strangest thing in all man’s travelling is that he should carry about with him incongruous memories. There is no foreign land; it is the traveller only who is foreign, and now and then, by a flash of recollection, lights up the contrasts of the earth.
The story really begins to gel when Major Morley puts in his notice. Will the Christies be sent to India, or back to their original posting in England? Hester is surprised to learn that she hasn't been in Scotland at all, but in Manchester. While her husband is away to settle things with the regiment, her next-door neighbor invites her to bring her daughter to the Highlands for a visit to "the real Scotland", thus exposing more characters and more rural habits to her diligent pen.
Some people travel all over the world and see nothing. They go about clad in a thick fog of their own making through which no impressions can penetrate. 
Hester contrives to be in the center of events that include separating a pair of mismatched lovers, a shocking elopement, the social-climbing of a lady who snubbed her in Manchester, and verbal battles between the stream-of-consciousness speech of another house guest and Major Morley, who has turned up in Scotland to woo the innocent Hester while her husband is "down south" at regimental headquarters.

This novel has some of the period flavor of The Avenue series by R.F. Delderfield, or James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Stevenson's novel is much lighter in touch, though, with none of the impending-war overtones of either male author. Dorothy Emily Stevenson was a relative of Robert Louis Stevenson, and her story carries an intimate sense of adventure and the humor to be found in living a quotidian life in the midst of extraordinary people.