Miss BillyAugust 28, 2007
The Miss Billy books are kind of hysterical. I mean, okay, Eleanor Porter has her plot elements that she’s really attached to, and she absolutely cannot resist a romantic misunderstanding, especially if it involves some noble (on a small scale) self-sacrifice. But this is ridiculous. There are three books but only approximately two books-worth of plot. And while the first book, Miss Billy, has about two books-worth of plot itself, Miss Billy’s Decision and Miss Billy Married each basically recycle the second half of Miss Billy in different ways. Not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy all three books, but I was a little frustrated at times.
The premise of Miss Billy is that Billy’s father, annoyed to find himself with a daughter instead of a son, insisted on naming her after his childhood best friend William Henshaw anyway. Billy’s parents both died when she was a child, and when the book opens she is eighteen and the aunt she has been living with ever since her parents’ deaths has just died too. She’s alone in the world, so the family lawyer suggests that she invite herself to her namesake’s house.
William lives in a house in Boston with his younger brothers Cyril and Bertram. He used to be married, but his wife died. Bertram calls their house the Strata; each brother has his own floor and his own interests, and keeps himself to himself. Cyril is the austere, musical one, William is the kindly collector of everything from spiders to teapots, and Bertram is an artist whose paintings are all entitled “Face of a Girl”.
So, Billy writes to William, and of course William fails to realize that she’s a girl until she shows up at the train station and he has to quickly telephone to his sister to be a temporary chaperone. The sister, Kate, is kind of annoying, though, so they only have her stay until they can get an old friend called Aunt Hannah to come on a more permanent basis.
Billy settles in. She makes friends with all three brothers, and involves herself in all of their activities; she helps William catalogue his collections, she’s pretty enough that Bertram often wants to paint her, and when Cyril discovers that she has a very good ear for music, he becomes less cranky and starts giving her piano lessons. The levels of the Strata begin to mix together more, and everything seems good, which of course means that something bad is going to happen.
Whenever anything bad happens in the Miss Billy books, it’s either Kate’s fault or no one’s. I mean, sometimes someone gets hurt or gets sick, but most of the time, when anything goes wrong, it can be traced back to something Kate has said. This time, she tells Billy that she’s messing up the Henshaw brothers’ nice, quiet lives. So Billy takes Aunt Hannah and goes to her old home, and to Europe, and pretty much everywhere but to the Strata. Every time Billy is nearby, the brothers all try to see her, and they can’t understand why she’s so elusive. Everyone is tense and unhappy.
When Billy finally comes back to Boston to stay, she sets up her own household with Aunt Hannah. The Henshaw brothers visit a lot, but over the two or three years since she’s moved out of the Strata, she’s made new friends, too. The most important are a poor young music teacher named Marie Hawthorn, and Hugh Calderwell, a young man who is also friends with the Henshaws. Marie, while she loves music, is not a great musician and only teaches to support herself. She’d much rather be a housewife. Billy invites Marie to stay with her and make puddings a lot. Hugh Calderwell is in love with Billy, and asks her to marry him repeatedly. She keeps saying no, but he doesn’t seem to get it. Isn’t it funny how it’s supposed to be romantic when the hero doesn’t take no for an answer, but if anyone else is as persistent, they’re just annoying?
Speaking of the hero, it’s about now that we begin to get clues about who he is. Well, sort of. In the very first description of the Henshaws, there was a bit about how the others don’t take Bertram very seriously because he’s “just Bertram,” and I immediately thought, ‘oh, she’s going to fall in love with him, isn’t she?’ and then when Calderwell shows up, Bertram takes an irrational dislike to him, which suggests jealousy. And I should have trusted my instincts, but then there’s this whole thing with Cyril that’s kind of awesome, and I so badly wanted it to be Cyril that Billy fell in love with that I allowed myself to ignore any further hints about Bertram and I ended up very disappointed.
See, when Billy first lived with the Henshaws, she was wary of Cyril. She wanted to be friends with him as she was with his brothers, but he wasn’t very friendly towards her. Also, she loved music, and she used to sit outside his door and listen to him play the piano. She’d never learned to play herself, but one day Cyril came into his rooms to find her sitting at his piano and semi-successfully making her way through a piece he had played recently. He was really impressed with her talent and started giving her proper lessons.
When Billy comes back to Boston three years later, Cyril hears that she’s a really good pianist, but the people he hears it from and the way they describe her playing make him think that she plays a lot of popular songs, or something, and he’s a snob. So he’s not all that friendly to her, and he won’t play for her, and Billy becomes kind of depressed about it. Then the Henshaws invite Billy and Aunt Hannah over for Thanksgiving dinner, and Billy wanders into her old room, sits down at her piano, and tries to play some of what she is feeling. Cyril is passing by, and when he hears the music, he sits down outside the door, just as Billy used to do when he played. After dinner, he finally consents to play for her.
A few days later, he asks her about what she was playing, and she’s like, “oh, I was just improvising,” which makes him even more impressed than before, and then she confesses that she’s written some songs, and he looks at them and says they’re really good and offers to help her work on them and then they start spending all their time together. Is it any wonder I thought there was a romance brewing there?
I think Eleanor Porter knew that the thing with Billy and Cyril was to obvious to ignore, so she has Billy think she’s in love with Cyril for about a week and then, I don’t know, change her mind.
Bertram proposes. Billy says no. Why couldn’t they leave it at that? Also, Marie falls in love with Cyril, and he with her. This, Porter explains, is because he doesn’t want a wife who is as brilliant as he is. When you have to make one of your characters into an asshole in order to avoid an obvious romance, doesn’t that suggest that maybe you shouldn’t be avoiding it?
Huh. I hadn’t realized I was still so angry about this.
Meanwhile, William still misses having Billy living with him. He thinks of her as a daughter, and he doesn’t understand why she insisted on leaving the Strata in the first place. When he realizes that Bertram is in love with Billy, he’s really happy. If Billy and Bertram get married, he thinks, Billy will come to live at the Strata, and they can all be one big happy family.
Enter annoying sister Kate. She thinks something is going on between William and Billy, never mind the 25 year age difference. She and WIlliam have one of those conversations where each person thinks they know what the other person is talking about, but they’re both wrong. Kate thinks she’s encouraging William to ask Billy to marry him. William thinks she’s telling him that he can further Bertram’s cause with Billy by talking to her about it. Naturally, they come away from the conversation thinking they agree with each other.
Then Kate tells Billy that William is in love with her, and Billy, who loves William very much even though she’s not in love with him, decides that she can sacrifice her happiness for his (it’s around now that she realizes she’s actually in love with Bertram).
So William comes over to have his talk with Billy, who interprets it as a marriage proposal and accepts. And then they’re both engaged, although neither of them wants to be, and everyone is miserable for a month or two, until William manages to figure out what’s going on and clear up all the misunderstandings. Billy and Bertram get engaged. Kate disapproves. So do I, but not for that same reasons. Kate disapproves because she thinks Billy and Bertram are both very flighty. I disapprove because they have nothing in common.