Dora DeaneMarch 29, 2009
Although I’ve read Tracy Park about four times and love it to a degree that is truly silly, I never read anything else by Mary Jane Holmes. Part of it was just laziness, but I think it was also because I was worried that her other books wouldn’t be as enjoyable, and that I’d be disappointed. Now that I’ve read Dora Deane, however, I no longer have to worry. That’s not to say that Dora Deane is anywhere near as awesome as Tracy Park. It’s not. And it’s different in a lot of ways, many of which I think are due to its having been written thirty years earlier. But Mrs. Holmes still pushes all the right buttons. I think she appeals to my worst instincts as a reader, and I kind of love it. Dora Deane owes a lot to The Wide, Wide World, what with its pretty orphan who is sent to live with her aunt after her apparently perfect mother dies, but where Ellen Montgomery’s story was all about cultivating a certain kind of moral and religious strength, Dora Deane is pure melodrama.
First, the backstory. In a village called Dunwood live two sisters. Their names are Sarah and Fannie. Next door live three brothers, Nathaniel, Richard and John Deane. John and Fannie fall in love, and Sarah, who is also in love with John, marries Richard out of spite. Nathaniel, who is considerably older than the others, is also in love with Fannie, and when he hears she’s going to marry his brother, he runs off to India (after bravely overcoming the temptation to kill John). John and Fannie have a baby, Dora Deane, and then, after a while, John dies. And then Fannie dies too, in a freezing garrett with ten-year-old Dora sleeping at her side. They are discovered that way by a wealthy and charitable young woman, Mrs. Elliott, and her brother Howard Hastings. I don’t think Mrs. Holmes is very creative with names.
Before her death, Fannie writes to Nathaniel Deane, now rich and old and crabby and living in India, asking him to write to Sarah and ask her to take Dora into her home (because that was totally the most efficient way to handle the situation). So he does, because he’s still kind of obsessively in love with her. He also sends a check for five hundred dollars, to be used for Dora’s benefit and to be repeated each year.
Unfortunately for Dora, Sarah has two daughters, one of whom, Eugenia, is a creature of purest evil (the other, Alice, is pretty much a nonentity). They’re poor, but Eugenia wants everyone to think she’s rich, so she bullies her mother into doing the housework and they all starve themselves so they can put on a show of being richer than they really are. She proposes that they have Dora work as their maid, so they’ll no longer have to pay for one, and then she uses most of the check to buy herself some clothes. Eugenia writes to Uncle Nat in India on a regular basis, talking a lot about how fond she is of him, and how dull and cold Dora is.
Flash forward a year or so. Rose Hill, the big local estate, has been purchased by Mr. Howard Hastings. His young wife, Ella Grey, is in poor health, so although she thinks the country is vulgar, he decides to move her there over her objections. Ella is very sweet and beautiful, but is not pure-souled and high-minded enough to be a fitting companion for Howard Hastings. It’s all very David Copperfield.
Ella becomes friends with Eugenia, who secretly plans to marry Howard Hastings after Ella dies of consumption–nobody ever says Ella’s got consumption, but for some reason everyone expects her to die of it. Ella gives birth to a daughter and becomes sick, so Eugenia sends Dora to help take care of her. Howard and Ella realize that she is the girl who he and his sister found with her dead mother, and feel an interest in her on that account, but they also grow very fond of her, because she’s beautiful and cheerful and the baby loves her.
When Ella dies (Of consumption? Perhaps) Eugenia insists that Dora continue to nurse the baby at her own home, which means that Howard Hastings is constantly visiting and Eugenia has the perfect opportunity to make him fall in love with her. The plan works pretty well, and Howard Hastings grows to like Eugenia and even continues visiting after the baby dies. But he never quite gets to the point of proposing, and Eugenia decides that what she needs to more completely ensnare him is a new piano, which she cannot afford. So she writes to Uncle Nat, claiming that she needs money to send Dora to school, and, hoping that it will move him to send more, asks Dora to send him a message.
Dora sends her love and a lock of her mother’s hair, and although Eugenia replaces “sends her love” with “asks to be remembered to you,” and keeps back some of the hair for ornaments, Uncle Nat is so affected by it that he decides to count the hairs and send Dora a dollar for each one. The letter with Uncle Nat’s check is addressed to Dora, but Eugenia gets to it first and Dora never knows of its existence.
Eugenia persuades Howard Hastings to go to Rochester with her to shop for a new piano, and he agrees, but has her true colors revealed to him by a convenient vent in her hotel lobby that allows him to hear perfectly the conversation going on in the Deanes’ hotel room. Eugenia and Mrs. Deane happen right at that moment to be recounting the history of the wrongs Eugenia has done Dora, with the occasional reference to her campaign to become Howard Hastings’ second wife. What a coincidence, right?
Howard Hastings goes home, unable to face Eugenia, and soon he arranges for Dora to go live with his sister Mrs. Elliott, who cleverly discerns that he’s in love with Dora (who is about sixteen at this point, I think). Mrs. Elliott won’t let him propose to Dora yet, so he goes to India to meet Uncle Nat, letting Eugenia think that he’s just going to Europe and that he’s still interested in her. When they return, Howard Hastings prepares a “double surprise” for Eugenia: his marriage to Dora and the appearance of Uncle Nat.
Uncle Nat, once the truth has been revealed to him, hates Eugenia to the point that, whenever he spends time with her, he has to rush away and trash his hotel room to work out his anger. It’s cute. Eugenia manages to marry Ella Grey’s dissolute but rich brother Stephen before he realizes that she’s not an heiress, but…well, another way of putting that would be that Stephen manages to marry heiress Eugenia Deane before she realizes that his father has gone bankrupt. They move out West to see if they can start over, and the book probably ought to have ended there, because it seemed like they might have grown fond of each other and made a success of things, but Mrs. Holmes always tells you more than you need to know (and gives you more revenge than you thought you wanted).
Stephen becomes a drunkard, abuses Eugenia, and dies, leaving her to go crazy and tear her hair out–literally–at which point Nathaniel “Vindictive” Deane finds her, forgives her, and sits with her while she dies.
Mrs. Holmes is an author who can’t leave well enough alone, and I kind of love her for it. But she calmed down a bit later in life, and I think that the Mary Jane Holmes who wrote Tracy Park would have been a little kinder to Eugenia Deane.