Aunt Crete’s EmancipationApril 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.