The Motor MaidMarch 11, 2013
Someday I’m going to run out of books by the Williamsons where some people go on a road trip through part of Europe and at least one person isn’t what they seem and someone falls in love with the chauffeur. And on that day I will be very sad.
The Motor Maid has some really, really great bits, but mostly I enjoyed it as a good example of the Williamsons’ mini genre. (Has anyone encountered one of these chauffeurs-and-sightseeing-and-incognito books written by anyone else?) See, on one hand there’s the beginning, which takes place on a train and has a rough parallel to the beginning of Miss Cayley’s Adventures and made me think I might be starting my new favorite Williamsons book, but on the other hand this might be the snobbiest Williamsons book ever.
Our heroine is Lys d’Angely, a half French, half American orphan who’s running away from her surviving relatives so they can’t make her marry a massively wealthy manufacturer of corn plasters. New money is inherently disgusting to the Williamsons, but they’ve also made him personally disgusting, whether for the benefit of their less prejudiced readers or because they can’t conceive of a manufacturer of corn plasters who isn’t super gross, I don’t know. Anyway, Lys’ friend Pam has found her a job as companion to an elderly Russian princess and a first class ticket to Cannes to get her to it. And then Pam promptly disappears to America with her husband because the rest of the book requires that she not be on hand to give Lys any further assistance.
I should stop mocking this bit of the book though, because it’s awesome. Lys has an upper berth on the train, and the woman in the lower one is noisily unable to sleep. Also, her bulldog is runnng around on the floor below, making threatening noises. Eventually Lys gets sick of listening to the woman complain to herself about how awful she feels, so she climbs down and forcibly undresses her. Then they drink tea and eat snacks and Lys makes friends with the bulldog and everything is basically perfect. This is the bit that reminded me of Lois Cayley’s initial interactions with Lady Georgina, and I started hoping that Lys would take a job with Miss Paget and that they would have awesome adventures together. Instead, Miss Paget leaves Lys with her English address and the promise of a job if she ever needs one, and Lys arrives in Cannes to find that her prospective employer, Princess Boriskoff, has just died.
This is where the main body of the plot kicks in. An impoverished Irish noblewoman (because the Williamsons sometimes have trouble writing books without those) helps Lys find a job as lady’s maid to the nouveau riche wife of a manufacturer of liver pills. Both Lys and Lady Kilmarny are horrified by Lady Turnour and her husband, but Lys is broke, and this job will get her back to England. And while Lady Turnour is in fact awful — although I blame this more on the authors than the character — Lys ends up enjoying accompanying the Turnours on their trip through the South of France. This is a little bit because of the scenery, but mostly because of the chauffeur. His name is Jack Dane and he’s in a similar situation to Lys’ — he’s clearly a gentleman but has had to hire himself out as a chauffeur for reasons he doesn’t care to explain. They quickly become friends, and have pretty good chemistry of a very Williamsons-ish kind.
Having wound up the mechanism of the plot, the Williamsons pretty much let it toddle along by itself from there. The ending is abrupt, and makes the beginning feel too long, maybe, but The Motor Maid is a lot of fun. Except that I kept stopping and wondering whether the Williamsons — and their characters — are always quite this mean about people who aren’t like them. Lys and Jack are both poor but aristocratic, and they spend a lot of time mocking the Turnours and their stepson, who were all born into the lower classes. Neither of them associates at all with anyone in their current social position, and very few of the people they interact with on their travels meet with their approval. It’s an interesting setup, having the actual gentlefolk waiting on the social climbers, but the execution is a little too mean-spirited for it to be as fun as it could be. And in the end, the Williamsons were even a little bit mean about Miss Paget.
This is going to make it sound like I didn’t like The Motor Maid, but I did, a lot. It’s as Williamsons as it gets, and I like them. It just also made me a little bit uncomfortable.