Charles RexMarch 12, 2011
Time for entry three in the ongoing saga of “Do I or do I not like Ethel M. Dell? How long do I have to decide?” The short version: I think I need more time.
Charles Rex isn’t ever going to be my favorite anything — not even my favorite book where a wealthy aristocrat with a bad reputation takes a waifish young boy under his wing only to discover that the boy is a girl and fall in love with her — but it’s not terrible, and “not terrible” is, to be honest, all I’m looking for from Dell. I never expected her to rise to the level of The Way of an Eagle again, although I kind of expected her to try in this one, after what seemed in The Obstacle Race to be a half-hearted attempt to duplicate Nick Ratcliffe. Sadly, Lord Saltash is neither as monkeyish nor as appealing as Nick, although, to be fair, he’s not as crazy either. But then, nor is the heroine occasionally repelled by him, as Muriel was by Nick. Toby, AKA Antoinette, Mignonette, Nonette, Toinette, etc., worships Saltash from the moment he rescues her from a hostile Italian hotel proprietor.
Toby’s hotel-boy disguise fails her when Saltash’s yacht the Night Moth gets hit by a larger ship and she, Saltash, and the Night Moth’s Captain Larpent are the only survivors. Saltash passes Toby off as Larpent’s daughter to save her reputation, and, as Larpent is badly injured and unconscious, there’s not much he can say about it.
While Larpent is recovering, Saltash brings Toby to stay with what I assume must be the hero and heroine of Dell’s novel The Hundredth Chance, Jake and Maud Bolton. Maud had once been engaged to Saltash and still has a soft spot for him, and I have the impression that Jake is meant to be American, although it’s hard to say: on one hand, he uses the word ‘reckon’ a lot, but on the other hand, it sometimes shares sentence space with ‘shan’t’.
Anyway, Toby settles down with the Boltons and their four small children and tries not to swear as often as she normally does. She also makes friends with Maud’s younger brother, Bunny, and they basically hang around betting on horse races together until he realizes that she’s pretty, sexually assaults her, and badgers her into getting engaged to him. Weirdly, this is supposed to indicate that he’s young and innocent, and not just an asshole, although that fiction wears thin when he finds out that Toby used to work as a hotel boy and promptly repudiates her. The fact that he thinks dressing as a boy is synonymous with being sexually promiscuous is, I think, also meant to indicate his innocence, and — to give credit where credit is due — it is slightly more convincing than the sexual assault.
At this point, Toby goes and tells Saltash that she found Bunny kind of unconvincing too, and that what she’d really like is to be Saltash’s mistress. This is apparently what it takes to convince him of her love, and since he’s been silently pining for her almost as long as she’s been silently pining for him, he’s like, “Okay, cool. Let’s get married.” And they do. Only, for some mysterious reason, he neglects to inform her that he’s in love with her. I guess Dell didn’t think the book was long enough yet. Also, she had a really funny bit she hadn’t yet had a chance to use, and she didn’t want to let the whole Toby-masquerades-as-Larpent’s-daughter/Larpent-has-a-mysterious-romantic-past setup go to waste. Yes, it turns out Toby really is Larpent’s daughter. No, that doesn’t make the rest of the plot any more coherent.
Really what’s happened is that I was kind of put on the wrong track by Dell’s first novel having a few appealing characters and a dash of narrative consistency. Clearly, that was a one-off, and her real strength is the portrayal of moderately absurd things happening to moderately irritating people. And I think I can live with that.