The Carved CupboardOctober 1, 2013
I am in general, not a huge fan of religious fiction, but Amy Le Feuvre is my weird, inexplicable exception. I have just confirmed this by reading a book called The Carved Cupboard. I’ve read a couple of other things of hers, but they were full of angelic dying children and dead dogs, and…no. No angelic dying children for me. The Carved Cupboard, like Her Kingdom, is about young women, and its religious focus is a vehicle for the larger theme of their finding their places in the world.
I just reread my post about Her Kingdom, and I don’t really remember the process of writing it, but I suspect I wrote a long, rambling draft about how much I love it, and then scrapped that and wrote something else instead. So I can’t point you at anything explaining my deep and irrational positive feelings towards it. Part of it is that it’s a mix of tropes I like a lot — the slow remaking of one’s circumstances, taming wild small children, he/she fell in love with his/her wife/husband, etc. But Amy Le Feuvre clearly has something else going on that I’m into, because The Carved Cupboard doesn’t include any of those things. And I don’t love it the way I love Her Kingdom, but I like it a lot.
It starts with four sisters being turned out of their home after their aunt dies, their cousin having apparently bullied her into changing her will in his favor during her final illness. With Aunt Mildred gone, each of the four Dane girls has only about a hundred pounds a year. Shades of Her Kingdom, but also of Sense & Sensibility. The four girls decide to pool their money and rent a cottage together in the country. There a mystery is introduced in the form of the titular cupboard, which the owner of the cottage has told them never to open — shades of Bluebeard. Not that they could if they wanted to, since it doesn’t open in any conventional way.
The eldest and youngest sisters are pretty well off — Agatha has her housekeeping and good works, Elfrida has her music and natural cheer, and both of them have God. Gwendoline and Clare, though, are less content. Gwen is the proud, practical one who needs to learn how to let herself be guided by God, and Clare is the imaginative, discontented one whose fiancé is on a survey expedition in Africa and how needs to learn patience. Each of them suffers — Clare when Hugh’s party is massacred, and Gwen when her plans for her brother in California go wrong — but they learn from their experiences and, with the help of the carved cupboard and the circumstances surrounding it, all four sisters are eventually provided for. Bad things happen, but mostly everyone ends up okay. Not all of the religious people are perfect, and the scheming cousin is never redeemed.
The biggest problem with The Carved Cupboard is that there’s so much story that Le Feuvre doesn’t have space to spread out. Suprisingly, character development doesn’t come off too badly — even minor characters are pretty well developed. Everything fits in the space provided, actually — it just doesn’t fit comfortably, and you don’t get much space for extra detail. And by extra detail I mean the meat of a story like this, which is, under a thin veneer of melodrama, about people growing into change. But while I missed what wasn’t there, I liked what was.
I keep thinking about the religious stuff, and about why it doesn’t bother me, when religious fiction so often does. It might just be a lack of condescension. For now, at least, I’m content to enjoy Le Feuvre, and hope I come across more of her non-children’s books in the future.