Lady Betty Across the Water

May 20, 2010

So, Lady Betty Across the Water is by the Williamsons, but for the second Williamson book in a row, I was constantly reminded of Elinor Glyn. And this time, it wasn’t just a general feeling of Glynishness: my major recurring thought was, “this happened in Elizabeth Visits America, didn’t it?”

The answer, for about fifty percent of the events of Lady Betty, is yes. But apparently Lady Betty came first. I’m…actually probably going to have to work at not resenting it for that. Not that Elizabeth Visits America is significantly better, or that I didn’t really enjoy Lady Betty. It’s just that Elizabeth so embodies the kind of character that she and Lady Betty both are, that Lady Betty is always going to seem like an imitation.

And really, she is: the Williamsons may have done the America thing first, but The Visits of Elizabeth came out in 1901, while as far as I can tell, Lady Betty first appeared in print in 1905.

I don’t really want to keep harping on this, but Lady Betty and Elizabeth really are two variations on the same theme (can anyone recommend a third, by the way?). They are both members of the English aristocracy, both young, sheltered and innocent, both released into society for the first time, and both narrating in an “out of the mouths of babes” kind of style. But the Williamsons are not Elinor Glyn, so where Elizabeth innocently reveals to the reader a lot more than she realizes about the scandalous goings-on of her relatives and friends, Betty’s narration is more about cutting through pretension with common sense. I like that.

I also like the secondary characters in Lady Betty Across the Water better than those in the Elizabeth books. Well, most of them, anyway. Sally Woodburn is a bit too much of a deus ex machina to ever come into her own as a character. Every time the plot suddenly seemed heavy-handed, the effect could be traced back to Sally Woodburn. But the people who aren’t Sally Woodburn are mostly pretty successful as characters. I suspect that this is because Betty actually likes a lot of people, while with Elizabeth you can always see Glyn’s cynicism showing through.

The Williamsons are never really cynical, even when they think they are, and that has disadvantages as well as advantages. Sometimes Lady Betty seems less innocent than wilfully dim.

See, there’s this guy traveling in steerage on the ship in which Lady Betty travels to America, and from the moment she talks about how handsome and gentlemanly he looks, it’s obvious that he’s the love interest. Pretty soon it’s also obvious that he isn’t as poor as Lady Betty thinks he is, and each time he shows up (or sends her an extravagant gift) she seems more stupid for not realizing that he’s actually a millionaire named Harborough disguising himself as a poor man in order to make sure Betty doesn’t just want him for his money. I mean, there a lot of hints. One or two would have been enough. No need to hit us over the head, Williamsons.

But really, I liked Lady Betty Across the Water a lot. Betty is almost as awesome as Peggy O’ Malley, except for the not being terribly bright thing, and Peggy is my favorite Williamson heroine ever. Actually, I guess Betty is pretty much what you would get if you crossed Peggy with Elizabeth and subtracted a few IQ points. And  Betty isn’t stupid all of the time.

It’s ridiculous. Every time I try to convey how much I liked this book, I end up criticizing it, or damning it with faint praise, but honestly, I do like it, and recommend it, and plan on reading it again some day, and now I’d better stop, or I’ll end up saying something mean.



  1. this was my first williamson..i really enjoyed it

    • It’s definitely a fun one. I sort of wish it had been my first, and that I hadn’t come to it already having read others in which people disguise themselves as chauffeurs.

  2. I really like the Williamsons’ books but I’ve only read a few of them. I’ll definitely give this one a try.

  3. I’ve just read this (on your recommendation) and really enjoyed it. Something about Elinor Glyn puts my teeth on edge, so I didn’t much like the works of hers I read; but I find the Wiliamsons’ more naive approach fun. Some of Lady Betty’s obtuseness can be excused by her sheltered upbringing, but she does come across as rather thick sometimes! I was interested by the over-the-top luxury described in Newport – did this actually exist or were the Williamsons indulging themselves here?

    • I can absolutely see how Elinor Glyn might set someone’s teeth on edge, but I think she’s hilarious. And the Elizabeth books are pretty different from the all-around excessiveness of books like Three Weeks.

      I don’t know a lot about Newport, but there’s an article on it here at Edwardian Promenade, and it sounds like the exaggeration is slight. (Also, do you think Potter Parker might be named after the Mrs. Potter Palmer who managed to break into Newport society?)

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