The Heart of Una Sackville

August 2, 2010

I’m not quite sure how I feel about The Heart of Una Sackville. When I was about halfway through, I’d all but decided that it was my new favorite book, but I hated the ending.

This is one of those “Dear Diary, I have just been given this diary…” books, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad, because the narrator will always fall in love with someone and remain oblivious for far longer than you would think possible. And when it’s done well, that’s one of my favorite tropes (see Dear Enemy), but when it’s too obvious, it can be completely infuriating. Here, it starts out infuriating, briefly becomes pretty much the best thing ever, and then does that thing that often happens in romance novels where the unresolved sexual tension all drains away at once without leaving anything in its place.

So. Una Sackville. She’s the second daughter of a wealthy landowner, good-natured and intelligent, but plump and moderately good-looking where her sister Vere is beautiful and ethereal. On the other hand, Vere is bitchy and manipulative and enjoys making all the men she meets fall in love with her, while Una is flawed but conscientious. Then there’s Will Dudley, studying at a local estate in preparation for inheriting a large property from an uncle somewhere in the North. Una promptly falls in love with him, although of course it takes her most of the book to realize it. Rachel Greaves, who lives with and nurses her invalid parents, is Will’s fiancee, and pretty much a saint, although somehow not in an irritating way.

That’s all pretty routine. It doesn’t really get good until the Sackvilles’ house burns down one night, and Vere is badly injured.

Things that are awesome about the middle section of this book:

1. Vere, post-injury. She ends up lying flat on her back unable to move her head more than a quarter of an inch in any direction for more than a year, and she’s furious about it. She smiles and acts unconcerned and refuses to refer to her injuries, and inside she’s seething. It’s awesome. I love that she doesn’t really become sweet and contented until she knows for sure she’s going to get better, and that when she finally decides to marry the one suitor who’s been faithful throughout her illness, Una and Will talk about how nice it is that Vere actually believes she’s loved him all along.

2. Will being in love with Una and trying to hide it. Something about his combination of casual friendliness, serious conversation, and unreadable looks, with the occasional near-disintegration of his control, is kind of impossibly romantic.

3. Una being completely consistent in her obliviousness/denial/teenage angst and self-loathing. It’s not just Will. It’s also the way she promises her father that she’ll take a walk with him every day, and how, when she forgets, she insists that it’s okay because she really meant to remember, but doesn’t buy her own argument. It’s the way she keeps telling herself that her friend Lorna’s brother isn’t in love with her and ends up having to refuse his offer of marriage and torturing herself with the idea that she’s ruined his life. But, most of all, it is the way she keeps saying to herself, “I can’t possibly be in love with Will; he’s engaged.”

And really, that’s good enough to counter a lot of sappiness and dullness towards the end. But that’s not the real problem anyway.

Remember Rachel? She’s lovely. She’s not exciting, but Una and Will both really like her. And even if they didn’t, it would obviously be cruel of Will to break the engagement. And yet this is clearly a book that’s going to have a happy ending. It’s an untenable situation, especially after Una and Will silently profess love to each other in the middle of a car crash. Especially because Una knows that Rachel is genuinely in love with Will.

I was really interested to see how Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey would resolve the situation, and I suppose what she does is the obvious thing, but that doesn’t stop it from making me completely furious.

It turns out that Rachel noticed Una and Will having their moment in the middle of a car crash, and, because she is impossibly unselfish, she waits a few months and then breaks off the engagement. Will is overjoyed and unsuspicious, but Una realizes what must have happened.

It’s just…Rachel has nothing. She spends all her time waiting on invalids, and, as Una notices, she does it so cheerfully that people stop giving her credit for it. There’s a bit early on where Una invites Rachel to a party and Rachel, as usual, declines. Will thanks Una for her thoughtfulness, but points out that Rachel will be happier at home, and Una feels kind of resentful on Rachel’s behalf, because it’s unfair and condescending to assume that Rachel doesn’t do fun things because she doesn’t like them. It’s stuff like that that made me love this book, and seeing Rachel cheerfully abdicate and Una complacently take her place kind of ruins it.

Well, that and the way that Will somehow becomes deeply unlikeable as soon as he finds out that Una loves him.

I was interested to see that Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey (it’s impossible to separate any part of that name from the rest of it) mostly wrote girls’ books. I have really high hopes for them, since all of The Heart of Una Sackville‘s issues seem to sprout from the romance plot.

One comment

  1. This sounds pretty good. I’ve read The Lady of the Basement Flat by Mrs. GDHV and liked it quite well so I’ll try this.

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