|(Cover by Philip Gough)|
The Frenchman and the Lady seems like such an odd title to have chosen for this book: the lady in question is elderly, wizened and formidable, and the Frenchman is a relation by marriage who barely even features in the story, but perhaps such a title was thought to hint at something a little more passionate. Elizabeth Cadell was the pseudonym of Harriet Ainsworth, a prolific author of what was termed 'women's fiction', and this is a lightweight story constructed around the faltering development of a romance, but not between the pair alluded to in the title. The story it tells is slightly amusing and completely implausible, involving people who are inherently good-natured and unusually amenable to change, and it is always clear that a happy ending is guaranteed. It was published elsewhere as Enter Mrs Belchamber, which seems a far better title, for in Mrs Belchamber, Elizabeth Cadell does succeed in creating an interesting character.
Mrs Belchamber is a woman of advanced age and very fixed ideas, the principal one being that all things English are superior to all things foreign. She simply knows that English products are better made, English children are better behaved, English trains are more stable, and so the list goes on. Despite this prejudice, she has lived her entire adult life on the Continent, but now, having survived her third husband, she is heading home to spend her final years in the retirement home she has funded. She is making this journey by train and in reasonable comfort, having retained an entire carriage to herself by glaring at any prospective companion. But her solitude is eventually disrupted. She finds herself forced to finish her journey in the company of three well-behaved French children, and their inattentive and uninterested guardian.
Mrs Belchamber is also a woman of immovable temperament, and once she has decided upon a course of action, nothing and no one can dissuade her from seeing it through. She doubts that Christian Heron is sufficiently dedicated to the three orphaned children in his care, and she may be right, for he just wants to get them back to his London flat, and into the care of a nanny, so that he can resume his bachelor life. Mrs Belchamber's solution is to affix herself to this group of strangers, for she perceives that the youngest child is unwell; once attached there is simply no shaking her off. And as Heron's behaviour is constrained by the tenets of polite behaviour which Mrs Belchamber is content to ignore, he is left defenceless. When he is unable to get to London through the fog, he foists himself and the children on a friend living locally, thereby imposing Mrs Belchamber on his unprepared friend as well.
She revolutionises their lives. Although she is an uninvited stranger of no status in the household, she assumes control and issues orders, and she soon has even the grown men falling in with her commands. She may be abrasive, but she is effective and capable and she gets things done. By the end of the story she has solved all their problems. It seems that everything in life is simple, if it is only approached the right way.
This is not the kind of book it would ever occur to me to read, except that it was there on my vintage Penguin shelf, and therefore part of my project. I think it was fine for what it was, a passive form of entertainment which requires nothing from the reader other than a willingness to accede to the idea that for every problem there is a simple but overlooked solution which can be easily imposed by a woman of indomitable spirit who will brook no opposition.