After a long time, I found myself reading a book from among my own books (the last was Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point back in May for Daphne du Maurier Reading week), rather than my NetGalley pile (the only others of my own books I’ve read since have been Agatha Christies and all revisits).
Bewildering Cares (1940) is one of the Furrowed Middlebrow books and is essentially the diary of a vicar’s wife, Camilla Lacely, over one week of Lent during the early days of the war. While largely a humorous look into Camilla’s life and excessively busy schedule, this also has a much more serious touch both because of the period in which it is set (the war), and some of the issues it goes into—life, death, and religion, among them.
In the book, we are in a small parish, Stampfield, somewhere between London and Manchester where Arthur Lacely is vicar; Arthur and Camilla have one son Dick who is away serving in the war, and at home, a maid Kate, good at heart, but not particularly efficient helps Camilla run the ten-room house as best as they can. Each of the chapters covers either an entire day or part of it, and each is rather eventful. As the book opens, Camilla receives a letter from an old-friend Lucy, with whom she has lost touch over time, and who is now is asking after her and wants to know how she spends her days. The diary is meant partly as a response to that inquiry.
Through the chapters, we follow Camilla as she goes through her very busy routine—managing house (or rather struggling to do so)—cleaning, preparing meals, and budgeting; visiting the sick; helping various parishioners with their problems (from money to clothes to filling in forms and applications); serving on countless committees (much more than she usually would for so many people are away because of the war that the older residents must make up for this), attending bazaars, delivering lectures and also finding time to do the things she enjoys most—reading—something she can’t often find the time for. At the midst of this is a little (or perhaps not so little) parish scandal—Mr Lacely’s curate, Mr Strang has preached a rather controversial sermon advocating pacifism and peace at a time when nearly everyone is focused on and is serving in the war; this gets everyone’s hackles up, especially Mr Weekes, churchwarden and the wealthiest man in town who contributes much to the town’s relief. Mr Weekes and others are expecting Arthur to take strict action (that is, seek Strang’s resignation), while Arthur is attempting to find a more peaceful solution. Poor Camilla is asked for her opinion wherever she goes, but is at a loss for she had been asleep when he was delivering it and also wants to leave matters to Arthur.
This book has been compared to the Diary of a Provincial Lady a book which I love very much. While I can see where the comparisons are coming from—the thread of humour that runs through a lot of the book, also the observations that Camilla makes on people and events around her, and her struggles to balance looking after her home in wartime and her rather endless duties in the parish—this isn’t overall as funny or light-hearted (with more serious themes and threads) but an enjoyable read all the same. Another element in which it can be compared to Provincial Lady is the various books referenced all through (something that we saw there as well)—for Thirkell to Provincial Lady itself, Charlotte M Yonge to Just William—needless to say, this was something I loved.
The elements I enjoyed most in the book were Camilla’s daily troubles and struggles managing her day (and her ever missing engagement book)—I was honestly rather surprised as just how much she had to fit in every day—and the scandal around Mr Strang—how it played out and how it ended up being resolved; one example in particular which Arthur brings up being exactly the course the matter ends up taking (as he seems to have realised much before any of the others). I also enjoyed Camilla’s wandering mind—one can’t really blame her for wanting a bit of rest or for her mind going to matters of meals and home when the Archdeacon is expected just at the time her maid Kate has asked for the weekend off. In these elements, the tone is light-hearted, and Camilla’s observations rather witty. I also enjoyed following the stories of some of the other characters like Miss Croft a spinster of few means who runs a tea shop; Mr Elgin the rather morose pianist at church, and of course Dick, the Lacely’s son, whose letters arrive from time to time bringing some good cheer, though initially the lack of news from him is a cause for much worry (while he only appears in person towards the end, he is present throughout through his observations which Camilla always things of). That the doctor was called Mr Boness was a fun little note as well (reminding me a little of Trollope’s solicitors Slow and Bideawhile).
Of the more serious threads, an aspect that stood out to be was the entire social support system in the parish—while Mr Weekes seems to object to any form of state support (or social legislation as we would term it), he and Mrs Weekes are always willing to support with money and other aid any of the poorer members of the community, especially during difficult times like illness. Even their strong feelings against Mr Strang do not prevent them from extending every help when he falls ill and his young wife is at a loss for what to do. Alongside we also have both Arthur and Mrs Lacely visiting everyone who needs a hand, or just a comforting presence, and also being ever willing to give all they have (money, clothes, time) to those who need it. Camilla even gives up the money she had saved for a new hat (Arthur’s reaction when she finally gets the hat is priceless). The state no doubt provides a lot of the same or similar assistance, but what stands out in this context is both the feeling of community and the personal touch and concern that was involved in helping those in need.
Religion is of course another theme that runs through the book, and this is the part with which I felt the most disconnect. I did love how Camilla talks about her own faith—how she expresses it, but otherwise, I didn’t find these sections as absorbing as the lighter ones.
Death too, is something we frequently deal with in the book, Arthur being a vicar is frequently called to deathbeds (though we don’t follow him as such), and Camilla too must visit some who are about to pass. I liked this one observation:
Certainly I was praying for victory now, I realized dreamily, for victory over death. Isn’t that the victory we all are praying for, in spite of human experience? And why do we do it when death is the only escape from fear…
But not going into the more sombre themes any further, for the most part this book is humorous and good fun; especially as I’ve already written, in Camilla’s daily struggles and her observations of people and situations.There may be deaths and sadness, but there is also love (a couple of love stories actually) and joy (including in books), and the promise of future happiness. Aside from the few segments I mentioned, I enjoyed reading the book very much.