Aunt Crete’s Emancipation

April 15, 2014

When I get in a certain kind of mood, there’s nothing that I want more than stories about downtrodden people being showered with care and nice things and the people who have been metaphorically treading on them having that shoved in their faces. And Aunt Crete’s Emancipation, by Grace Livingston Hill, is the distilled essence of that. And you guys know me pretty well, I guess, because a number of you have recommended it to me over the past few years. It’s my own fault for not giving in and reading it sooner.

Aunt Crete is Lucretia Ward, a dumpy middle-aged spinster who lives with her sister Carrie and her niece Luella. They’re not particularly nice to her, in just about every way they can manage. They pass off to her the greater share of the housework, deprive her completely of anything she wants for herself, and put down everything about her: her looks, her intelligence…even the kindness and love for her dead eldest sister that make her look forward to a visit from her unknown Western nephew.  Carrie and Luella are much less excited about the nephew, who they picture as gawky and uncivilized, and flee to a seaside resort just before he arrives, leaving Aunt Crete to receive him — and also to finish trimming some of Luella’s dresses and make jam and whitewash the cellar.

The nephew, of course, is neither gawky or uncivilized. He’s handsome and wealthy and well-educated and kind, and he both appreciates and returns Aunt Crete’s affection. He also quickly grasps the actual nature of the situation, hard as Aunt Crete tries to hide it from him, and immediately starts making up for it. First he takes her shopping for clothes, sparing no expense — an essential part of this kind of book — and then he takes her to the same resort Carrie and Luella have run off to. From there on, Hill wallows in gentle malice. And she does it with such balance. She’s less gentle than, say L.M. Montgomery, but less malicious than Mary Jane Holmes, who would have had Luella die at the end of the book, but not before all her hair had fallen out. Hill only makes Luella marry a plumber, but she rubs Aunt Crete’s newly acquired advantages in Luella and Carrie’s faces exactly as much as I wanted her to.

To paraphrase Jimmy Carr on 10 o’ Clock Live, Grace Livingston Hill has clearly found my level. I’m just kind of impressed by the purity of this book, for lack of a better word. It’s the platonic ideal of this trope, whatever this trope is called. It’s unsullied by romance and there’s no plot to speak of — just nice things being showered on Aunt Crete and not on Carrie and Luella, and Carrie and Luella having that rubbed in their faces. It’s petty, and vindictive on behalf of a character who couldn’t be, and I love it. I should go figure out where I left that copy of Cloudy Jewel.



  1. Almost done with Year of Delight– definitely going to look out for other Widdemer books (except I’ve Married Marjorie– will take your word on that one).

    Cloudy Jewel is a lot like Aunt Crete, only more evangelism. I do wish I knew if the younger characters’ dialogue is accurate, or if it’s more like Hill’s interpretation of what young people sounded like then.

    • I feel bad about warning everyone off I’ve Married Marjorie, because I don’t think anyone hates it like I do. But everything else I’ve read by Widdemer has been much, much better.

      I’m planning on figuring out where my copy of Cloudy Jewel is this weekend. I’m really looking forward to it now.

      • And I’ve warned everyone I know off “The Sheik” and Elsie Dinsmore! Except not so much Elsie Dinsmore, because it’s kind of fun getting texts that say WTF IS WRONG WITH THIS WRITER?

        Seriously, Lulu is the only character in the whole series I didn’t want to set on fire.

        • I’m sort of jealous of you for having people who will read Elsie Dinsmore at your suggestion. No one I’m on texting terms with will even read things I gush over.

          Lulu was almost more frustrating because she was so close to being a human being. But yeah, she was probably the best of them. Other people I didn’t want to set on fire: a couple of Elsie’s male cousins whose names I can’t remember, the two guys who became friends in Andersonville, that girl who fell down the stairs and was crippled the one time she wore high heels.

          • Molly! Who became a writer, and was absolutely never going to get married because she was crippled, until she totally did! Molly and Lulu would’ve made a great series together, learning how to run their lives, making mistakes and fixing them and being independent.

            And I’ve found you can sometimes get people to read things if you make them morbidly curious about whether or not you’re exaggerating how bad something is. (“There’s no way it could be that OH MY GOD WHAT DID I JUST READ?”)

            Elsie books are awful because WTF Martha Finley, but then they turn into history texts and they’re just awfully boring.

            • I actually gave up on Elsie about thirteen books in. I don’t think there’s any compelling reason to go back to it. Have you read Finley’s other series, though? Mildred Keith? I read the first one, and it was substantially less crazy than the Elsie books.

              • I think I made it to #20 or so before giving up– but I’ve never read the Mildred books. I’ll give them a shot, though. I regularly re-read Elsie & company just because they’re so bizarre.

                • For some reason I thought I read several of the Mildred books, but looking at the list of them, it looks like all the later ones involve Elsie. I guess that just means Mildred Keith works pretty well as a standalone.

  2. So the nephew’s kind of like the fairy godmother, and the prince is nowhere in sight?

    • The nephew is both fairy godmother and prince–he provides the magic, but he’s also her happily ever after, in that she goes to live with him and keep house for him.

  3. Ooh, this sounds like most of the things I like about “Cloudy Jewel”, only more so. I must read it!

  4. This popped up as an amazon recommendation for me a while back, but I sort of got the impression that there was some heavy religious messages going on, as it seemed to be categorized under both Christian Romance and Spirituality. But now I see it is one of my favourite themes of good-things-finally-happen-to-overburdened-spinster, I will overcome my prejudice!

    • This got stuck in spam for a while — sorry for the late reply. I suspect what happened there was that all of Hill’s books were categorized as Christian Romance. But there’s not more than a throwaway line or two about religion in Aunt Crete.

  5. The part of Cloudy Jewel that I like better is that Julia (the main character) is a bit more able to stand up for herself. They’re both put-upon, but Julia takes the chance to do better. Aunt Crete just sort of meekly accepts being put-upon and then being showered with goodies. Julia is more preachy though.

    • I think Alden handles the evangelism better than Hill, for the most part; she’s also better at character-building. She does her share of idealized female leads, but she doesn’t write many saintly ones (except for some of her older female maiden aunt types).

      • I have apparently been accidentally selecting Hill books without evangelism. So I have that in my future, I guess.

        • I suppose I’m misusing the term to an extent– reallllllllllllllly need to do my homework. But Cloudy Jewel is a good example of the evangelistic streak, as she converts her niece & nephew both. Aunt Crete… well, not so much; although she’s a professed Christian, there’s no need to convert *her* nephew.

          • I just read The Enchanted Barn, and the heroine converts the guy she’s eventually going to marry, but it wasn’t terribly obnoxious, and the bit where she almost converts her kidnapper by singing hymns was even pretty entertaining.

            • I adore the Enchanted Barn, but I’m a complete sucker for stories where somebody makes a cool home out of wreckage or an abandoned building or a run down slum or whatever. Just read an E. Nesbit adult novel where two girls were doing that with a old house they got hold of. Yay nesting!

              • Just realized, there’s a lot of that (making a home) in Cloudy Jewel too. Though it’s easier for them as they have a lot of money to do it with.

              • I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, too — The Enchanted Barn just didn’t have enough homemaking details to make it really work for me.

                The Lark, right? Cathlin recommended that a couple of weeks ago, and it sounds awesome.

    • That sounds fair. And of course I don’t know until I read Cloudy Jewel, but I like the distilled-essence-of-happily-ever-after nature of Aunt Crete’s Emancipation, and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for her to have any agency.

      • Didn’t even realize there were GLHL books without evangelizing in them! I thought that was the purpose of writing, for her. In Blue Ruin she literally copies out pages of a sermon by a famous preacher she liked, verbatim but duly cited.

        I want to read this Lark you mention. Nesbit’s The Red House may be similar. It’s about an adorable young couple who inherit a big old farmhouse.

  6. I’m having a re-read of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “T. Tembarom”, and I realized there is a significant amount of this going on, in a most satisfactory way, with the main character and Miss Alicia:

    “The strange luxury of traveling in a reserved first-class carriage, of being made timid by no sense of unfitness of dress or luggage, would have filled her with grateful rapture; but Rose, journeying with Pearson a few coaches behind, appeared at the carriage window at every important station to say, “Is there anything I may do for you, ma’am?” And there really never was anything she could do, because Mr. Temple Barholm remembered everything which could make her comfort perfect. In the moods of one who searches the prospect for suggestions as to pleasure he can give to himself by delighting a dear child, he had found and bought for her a most elegant little dressing-bag, with the neatest of plain-gold fittings beautifully initialed. It reposed upon the cushioned seat near her, and made her heart beat every time she caught sight of it anew. How wonderful it would be if poor dear, darling mama could look down and see everything and really know what happiness had been vouchsafed to her unworthy child!”

    • That sounds delightful and I would probably go find an etext right now if I were capable of reading anything not by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

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