Darkness and DaylightMarch 31, 2011
It’s Mary Jane Holmes time again, and if you like her, you’ll like this. Darkness and Daylight has a special claim on my affections, because it features a Secret Insane Wife, and obviously that is my favorite, favorite thing. But this is a book for connoisseurs of fictional coincidence as well as connoisseurs of fictional insane wives, and I like to think that I’m both. I mean, I suppose it’s not too strange that the Massachusetts estate Grace Atherton inherits from her elderly husband is next door to the childhood home of Richard Harrington, the man she jilted when she was a teenager in England. Or that Harrington reencounters the little Swedish girl he saved from drowning in Germany that one time. Or that Arthur St. Claire falls in love with his wife’s long-lost half-sister who is supposed to be dead, although that’s pushing it a little. But that all three should be true in one book? Or that the Swedish girl (Eloise Temple) and the long-lost sister (Marguerite Bernard) are one and the same, and that Grace Atherton adopts her from an orphanage in New York under the name of Edith Hastings? That’s almost more than I can deal with. Although, to be fair, “almost more than I can deal with” is Mrs. Holmes’ specialty.
If those names sound familiar, it’s probably because these people show up as minor characters in my beloved Tracy Park. Or possibly you’ve read one of the other Mary Jane Holmes books in which a main character is named Hastings.
I know I’ve just given away a large part of the plot, but don’t worry — you would have figured all of that out pretty quickly anyway. The key to dealing with Mary Jane Holmes is realizing that, yes, all the characters are related to each other/secretly connected/actually also other people. Or possibly their children.
Here’s what actually happens: Grace Atherton, of Brier Hill, takes nine-year-old orphan Edith Hastings from the orphan asylum to be her waiting maid. Shortly afterwards, Richard Harrington returns home to Collingwood, which is basically next door. Grace turned down Richard’s proposal of marriage when she was seventeen because she didn’t want to take care of his insane father. Two things about Richard have changed since she last saw him: first, he’s no longer in love with her, and second, he’s blind. That time he saved Edith from drowning when she was two, he caught a fever and his eyesight started to go, although at the point when he’s introduced, he can’t possibly have been completely blind for more than a couple of years (The internet being what it is, oughtn’t there to be a website where doctors make fun of 19th century novels?). Anyway, Richard and Edith get acquainted, and they grow fond of each other.
Soon Grace’s cousin Arthur St. Claire comes to visit, and he’s also kind of taken with Edith, so much so that when Grace tries to send her back to the orphanage, Arthur goes to Richard and talks him into adopting her. Meanwhile, Edith sees Arthur’s photograph of a young blonde girl and somehow knows that her name is Nina. Of all the things in this book that mess with my suspension of disbelief, none compare with Edith’s remarkable memory. She’s been Edith Hastings since she was three, and yet she’s got strong memories of Germany, Florida, various family members, music, and the French language. Half a dozen times I stopped reading to try and make sense of that, and half a dozen times I decided that the best course was probably not to think about it too hard.
Let’s skip ahead eight years. Edith is seventeen, and improbably beautiful. Richard is nearing forty, and in love with her. Creepy, yes, but, to his credit, he was totally uninterested in the idea of ever marrying her when she was nine. Also, he’s figured out that she was the girl he saved from drowning, but he doesn’t tell her because he wants her love for him not to be based on gratitude.
Then Arthur St. Claire returns to the neighborhood, buying a house called Grassy Springs, and he and Edith begin to fall in love with each other, which is a bad, bad idea, considering he bought the house mostly so that he could move his insane wife there. This is Nina Bernard, the girl in Arthur’s picture, and while Edith soon meets her and hears most of her story from Arthur, he conceals the fact that they’re married. Nina is too addled to remember the marriage very clearly, or to tell anyone about it, and she and Edith become close friends. Nina identifies Edith with her younger half-sister Miggie — a corruption of Marguerite — who died at the age of three. Miggie is supposed to have died in New York when she was three, but everyone figures that if it makes Nina happy to think that Edith is her sister, then who cares? And of course Nina is right, anyway.
As Arthur is passionately in love with Edith, and only fond of Nina in a brotherly way, he starts giving some serious thought to becoming a bigamist. And by “giving some serious thought to,” I mean “torturing himself over (lots).” I kept mentally imploring Arthur not to do anything stupid, which was silly because a) Mrs. Holmes would never go quite that far, at least not with her hero and heroine, and b) It’s pointless to ask Mrs. Holmes’ characters not to be stupid. They may not do that particular stupid thing, but there are so many opportunities for stupidity, and they will not pass them all by.
Arthur does eventually win out over his worst impulses and tell Edith the whole story, which includes perhaps the most ridiculous coincidence of all — that Richard Harrington performed the marriage between Arthur and Nina, only, being blind, he doesn’t know it was them — and then they both get to torture themselves (lots). Naturally, this causes Edith to fall ill and go a little bit nuts for a while, because Mrs. Holmes loves her crazy people.
Eventually she recovers, and Arthur decides it will be better for everyone if he and Edith don’t see each other at all, so he takes Nina back to her childhood home in Florida, leaving Richard to make his move. And this is where things turn really stupid, because there’s no reason Edith should agree to marry Richard, or try to convince him that she’s in love with him, and yet she does. And I wouldn’t say that Richard should be smart enough to see that she’s faking, except that she tells him she doesn’t love him, hears that he saved her life when she was a child, and then claims that she does love him and wants to marry him, all in rapid succession. So, yeah. He should be smart enough to see that she’s faking. Being blind doesn’t make you stupid. But then, being one of Mrs. Holmes’ characters sort of does.
Really, the story is just constructed so that Edith and Arthur suffer as much as possible, but also don’t actively do anything — at least, not after Arthur’s original marriage to Nina and the concealment thereof — that could possibly be construed as wrong or mean or…helpful to themselves in any way. They have to be together in the end, but they can’t try to be together, because that would be mean to Richard and Nina. Basically, this book is governed by the same logic that governs books like Under Two Flags. And it’s not earth logic, but sometimes it’s kind of delightful. So, in keeping with these rules, Nina must get sick immediately after Richard and Edith get engaged (to take care of the maximum suffering part) and everyone must do their utmost to prevent Richard from figuring out that Edith doesn’t love him/is in love with Arthur. Fortunately Nina and Richard’s awesome French servant Victor are exempt from that weird rule that doesn’t allow Edith and Arthur to try to eliminate any of the barriers between them. Edith puts off her wedding to Richard to go to Florida and be with Nina until she dies, and Nina keeps throwing her and Arthur together. And when they tell her that Edith is engaged to Richard, she’s like, “Fine, no problem, I’ll write him a letter–who will read it to him for me?” And Victor volunteers.
There’s more ridiculousness — Edith’s remarkable memory comes into play again and leads her to the discovery that she and Miggie are one and the same; Nina has a long, drawn out deathbed scene, because you can’t have a Mary Jane Holmes book without one (or without a crazy person or two, for that matter); and Richard burns a house down, but not on purpose. And it’s kind of excellent. I mean, you get what you knew you were going to get from the beginning: Arthur and Edith together, all of the reasonably good characters reasonably happy (or dead), etc. But everything happens in the most roundabout way possible, and the maximum amount of drama is extracted from each and every plot twist, and honestly? It’s kind of awesome.
It’s also kind of reassuring to know that Arthur and Edith settle down, that Arthur becomes a judge, and that they live quiet lives and get to a point where they’re just Dick and Nina’s parents. There are inconsistencies between Darkness and Daylight and Tracy Park — that half promised reconciliation between Richard and Grace never happens, and it’s odd that The St. Claires live at Grassy Spring in Tracy Park, when Darkness and Daylight ends with an assurance that they’ll stay at Collingwood forever — but basically we know that after this, things are going to be okay. And I’m happy for them all, because I was exhausted after reading this, so think how the characters themselves must feel.