The Amazing InterludeJanuary 31, 2012
The Amazing Interlude is my new favorite World War I romance. I’m not sure I had one before, but whatever. Mary Roberts Rinehart is, as usual, great, and she has the added advantage of having made a trip over to Europe to check out the trenches and stuff, so she knows what she’s talking about. Not that The Amazing Interlude is as gruesome, serious and propagand-filled as Kings, Queens and Pawns, her account of what she saw at the front, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s light fiction with a high moral purpose, and as such it functions perfectly.
Sara Lee Kennedy, the heroine, lives in Pennsylvania with her aunt and her uncle. It’s the early days of the war, and most Americans are only vaguely concerned with it, but the more Sara Lee thinks about it, the more she feels that she needs to go over to Europe and do something to help, except that she’s not a nurse and she doesn’t know how she can be useful. After her uncle dies, Sara Lee’s fiancé, Harvey, wants to get married immediately — her aunt is moving in with a cousin, and Sara Lee needs to live somewhere. Harvey thinks that the war isn’t their concern, and that her interest in it is silly. The members of the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society, on the other hand, are more like Sara Lee — they all feel a bit guilty that they’re not doing more to help. And that’s how Sara Lee convinces them to allow her a hundred dollars a month to go to Belgium and run a soup kitchen for soldiers at the front.
Harvey tells her she can’t go, but she replies that she was telling him what she was going to do, not asking for his input. It’s pretty awesome.
Once she’s in London, Sara Lee realizes that getting to the front is going to be a lot more complicated than she expected, and that every person in a position to give her an appropriate visa is also obligated to suspect her of being a spy. But she makes friends, first with an Englishman whose son is a soldier, and then with Henri, a Belgian spy. Henri is great. I mean, he’s got all the expected things covered: he’s massively brave, he falls in love with Sara Lee at the drop of a hat (or, more precisely, a donkey), he’s involved in a deeply homoromantic relationship with his chauffeur, etc. But he’s also kind of a nervous wreck. It’s very endearing.
Henri sneaks Sara Lee into France, and then he and his best friend/chauffeur Jean install her in a partially bombed-out house a quarter of a mile behind the Belgian front line. They find her a maid, Marie, and a guard, Rene, and the three of them set up their soup kitchen. Henri and Jean secretly subsidize it, and Henri teaches Sara Lee how to deal with the soldiers’ more minor injuries, and the house becomes very popular and even a little famous, to the point that Sara Lee receives a medal from the King of Belgium. Meanwhile, she keeps writing letters to the Methodist Ladies, who are satisfied with the results of their investment, and to Harvey, who is less happy. His letters a) belittle her efforts, b) try to make her feel guilty about leaving him, and c) show him to be a selfish, small-minded person. And while Sara Lee is being faithful to him and trying to convince herself that she’s still in love with him, he’s going to the Methodist Ladies behind her back to try and get them to cut off her allowance.
And eventually he succeeds, and Sara Lee’s “amazing interlude” is over.
Harvey is really a piece of work. Every time he appeared, he raised another red flag. My personal favorite bit of Harvey-behavior was when, after Sara Lee’s return, some reporters asked him if it was true that she’d been decorated by the King of Belgium, to which he responds that he doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and what did they think she was doing, fighting? Also, Sara Lee comes home all excited to tell him everything she did abroad, but every time she tries, he’s like, “let’s not talk about it, Honey.” Sometimes I would stop reading to imagine how Captain Awkward would respond to a hypothetical letter from Sara Lee about Harvey, which was lots of fun.
The thing about Sara Lee and Harvey is their situation is a reversal of all those bits in novels where it’s automatically dishonorable for the man to break an engagement, and he suffers until the less-honorable woman decides to release him, presumably for a less-than-honorable reason. It seems to have been a point of etiquette that the woman is the one who gets to break the engagement, based on an underlying assumption that the man can be trusted to keep his promise but the woman doesn’t have to because she’s…oh, a whole bunch of good things that are actually bad things. It’s the classic self-contradictory dual view of women: women are to be privileged because they’re special, but also women are flighty, fragile and generally unreliable.
Except that this book knocks that whole idea to pieces because Sara Lee isn’t like that at all. Her engagement to Harvey becomes increasingly uncomfortable, but she won’t break it off — it doesn’t occur to her to break it off, because she’s intensely honorable, and once she’s made her promise to Harvey, the idea that she wouldn’t keep that promise never even crosses her mind. Whereas Harvey, the selfish one, will do anything he can to hold on to Sara Lee.
Think about Sylvia for a minute, where this exact situation is reversed. Eric gets himself engaged to Edith and she refuses to let him out of it. And if he were to say, “I don’t want to marry you; go away,” without tagging “but I’m not actually breaking our engagement because I share some widely-held misconceptions about honor and gender and also I’m an ass,” on to the end of it, would that be okay? Or would it register as wrong somehow? Sure, there are double standards all over the place. I find this one particularly irritating.
This book, on the other hand? Awesome.