HollyhockAugust 29, 2012
I have found the worst ever L.T. Meade book. Or at least I hope I have. I wouldn’t like to think it gets any worse. This is kind of an unedited rant, so, you know, be warned.
At the start of Hollyhock we’re introduced to two families, so symmetrical that if the widowed father of one and the widowed mother of the other weren’t siblings, this would be The Brady Bunch. And it gets worse: George Lennox’s daughters are Jasmine, Gentian, Hollyhock, Rose of the Garden and Delphinium, known collectively as the Flower Girls, while his sister Mrs. Constable’s sons are the Precious Stones: Jasper, Sapphire, Garnet, Opal and Emerald. Only it turns out those aren’t their real names; they all have normal ones: Lucy, Wallace, Ronald, etc. that they don’t know about. Calling a little boy Opal and concealing from him that he’s really called Andrew sounds almost abusive.
Anyway, there’s a lot of Flower Girl and Precious Stone-related exposition, but none of it matters because you’re not going to see most of these kids again. I mean, Jasmine is usually around, and Jasper and Gentian show up from time to time, but mostly this is a book about Hollyhock, one of Meade’s beloved troublesome but fascinating heroines, and her relationship with Lady Leucha Villiers, who is both the secondary heroine and the villain. And not in the usual L.T. Meade way, where the quiet, sensible girl and the naughty gypsyish one become best friends. Although, to be fair, I haven’t read A Very Naughty Girl since I was in high school.
Leucha, the daughter of the Earl of Crossways, isn’t any kind of heroine. The characters I can think of that she resembles are mostly inexplicably evil younger brothers. L.T. Meade is like Rafael Sabatini in that she tends to twist personalities to drive the plot, so people tend to get strangely, radically worse over the course of one of her books. But Leucha is kind of unprecedented in that she’s all bad. I mean, she’s repeatedly described as small-natured, close-minded, skinny and unattractive, and no fun to be around. Also she’s excessively fond of kissing Hollyhock and Meade doesn’t let a chance pass to describe Leucha’s hair as her “scanty locks.”
The plot revolves around the fact that all the other girls at their school adore Hollyhock, while Leucha, who is a snob, thinks that she should be the leader of the school. But there is, in this case, a nonexistent line between love and hate, and when Hollyhock has a friend dress up as a ghost and then “rescues” Leucha from it, Leucha becomes devoted to her. But not for long: inevitably Leucha finds out about the prank and hates Hollyhock more than ever.
Hollyhock’s pranks, by the way, are uniformly terrible. Earlier in the book, she puts a cat and a bowl of cream under the covers of Leucha’s bed. You guys should hear my brother describe this as if it’s a prank he’s thought up and is really excited about, because under other circumstances it’s just not funny.
L.T. Meade hits all the bases — rivalry! Secrets! A dangerous illness! Betrayal! More dangerous illness! — but ruins it all by hating Leucha so, so much. I mean, having her be an annoying brat is one thing, but making everyone in the school, including the headmistress, loathe her is another, and it doesn’t seem fair. I mean, imagine you leave your boarding school for the weekend because you have no friends there anymore and it’s exhausting. Then everyone at the place you’re visiting insists on lecturing you about how mean you are, so you go back to school early, only to find that some of the girls have planned a performance for that evening featuring a) a ghost and b) a caricature of you as a cowardly dog. And they all tell you that they didn’t mean for you to know about it — as if that makes anything better — and that it’s your own fault for coming back early. When I say “they,” by the way, I mean all the students, the teachers, and the supposedly well-bred and lovely headmistress. Oh, and then the headmistress insists on assuming that you being freaked out by someone dressed up as a ghost when you were walking home alone in the dark is exactly the same thing as being freaked out by a person dressed as a ghost in a performance you’ve been warned about in advance, during which you’ll be sitting in a crowd of people. And warns you that if you are visibly freaked out, you’ll be expelled.
It takes a lot of bullying to make me sympathize with a character with no nice qualities, but L.T. Meade reached that point and kept going. Leucha is finally redeemed, sort of, when it’s Hollyhock’s turn to have a dangerous illness and in her delirium insists on having Leucha near her. Leucha abandons her grudge and becomes as affectionate as ever, but apparently this doesn’t actually make any change for the better, either in Leucha’s character or in the other characters’ feelings towards her. Other characters — and Hollyhock herself — still don’t understand understand why she likes Leucha. Meade’s idea seems to be that Leucha is always going to be awful, but that she’s less annoying when she’s friends with Hollyhock, and what’s important is not Leucha’s happiness, but everyone else being freed from her annoying presence.
The end of the book is about how Hollyhock’s new best friend the Duke of Ardshiel consents to have Leucha over for Christmas, but talks Hollyhock into choosing her sister Jasmine instead as a companion for their trip to the South of France. Oh, and then there’s a bit about how the Duke reluctantly buys Leucha some new clothes, and how there’s a maid at his house who manages to “make the most of [Leucha's] scanty locks.”
L.T. Meade is the meanest, guys. When did that happen?