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The Third Miss St. Quentin

October 5, 2017

I’ve been avoiding Mary Louisa Molesworth’s books for years, for no reason I can explain, but sometimes I go looking for something Cinderella-y and this time her The Third Miss St. Quentin was the thing that I found. And I’m glad of that, because it’s really good.

When I go looking for Cinderella stories, it’s because I don’t have a better way to look for what I really want: stories about people who are treated badly for a while and then get to have lots of nice things. The Third Miss St. Quentin isn’t that at all. Instead, it’s sort of a riff on the plot of Cinderella, but with a completely different emotional arc. The keynote of the story is that the Cinderella character is actually treated really well by almost everyone, almost all of the time.

The three Miss St. Quentins are Madelene, Ermine, and Ella. Madelene and Ermine are the daughters of Colonel St. Quentin’s first wife, and Ella, who’s about five years younger than Ermine, is the daughter of his delicate second. Maddie and Ermie are very fond of their stepmother and Ella, even though Ella’s kind of spoiled. But they’re just kids when the second Mrs. St. Quentin dies, and they have no say when Ella gets shipped off to live with an aunt. And then they don’t see each other for 11 years.

When they do meet again, it’s because Ella has run away from her aunt. Her arrival at Coombesthorpe isn’t unwelcome, but it is unexpected and inconvenient, and that causes some constraint. Also an issue: Colonel St. Quentin has lost all his money, and the family now lives on the fortunes left to Madelene and Ermine by their mother. Ella doesn’t know that she’s penniless, and no one wants to tell her–but they’re all worried about her future. Add to that Madelene’s shy, reserved personality and Ella’s quick temper, and it’s no surprise that, despite everyone’s best intentions, the sisters aren’t good friends.

There is a romance, complete with an incognito appearance at a ball, and an abandoned slipper, but the central relationship in the book is the one between Ella and Madelene, and my only major complaint about the book is that the focus moves away from that towards the end. Ella’s romance never felt all that important to me, so having the book end immediately after she talks things out with her love interest feels anticlimactic.

Aside from that, I liked The Third Miss St. Quentin a lot. It’s one of those stories where everyone is well-intentioned but human, and problems arise naturally, without being anyone’s fault. Ella’s misunderstandings did seem kind of willful at times, but Mrs. Molesworth makes the emotional ramifications her main focus, so it worked for me. I’m really looking forward to reading more of her books.

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7 comments

  1. Sounds like a fun twist on the Cinderella story!


    • It is–it really isn’t a Cinderella story itself, but it kind of uses Cinderalla as scaffolding.


  2. I avoided her at first because there’s something vaguely repellent to me about “Mrs. Molesworth” as an author name (it just sounds very bread-and-milk-y and didactic to me, for whatever reason) – but after running across her books enough times, I cracked, and yes, some of them are pretty good!

    The biggest problem I have with browsing her books on Project Gutenberg is that you never know what age level you’re going to hit when you click through to a book – is this going to be aimed at adults? Teen girls? Elementary school kids? Or 3 year olds? Somewhat harder to predict from the titles than, say, Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards.

    I also very much agree with your review! The Ella love story isn’t the meat of the book, so it sort of feels like the book fizzles out more than ends, but this is a problem with a lot of this sort of book – the book is really about someone’s character growth or sibling relationships or whatever, but since there is a love story jammed in, it ends with the “climax” of the love story, ta da, and sort of leaves the main concept/plot hanging. Oh, well…


    • You know what? I think I actually have one of her books somewhere but it looks like a tract. Either that or I’ve imagined that I do for precisely the reason you describe.

      I think a lot of older books have that romance problem, which is why I love it when I come across a book that doesn’t have a romance at all. I haven’t encountered the same thing in contemporary books–maybe because genres are more defined now? Or maybe i just don’t read the modern equivalent.


      • I’ve only run across one or two books written in the past 10 years or so that have the “ends with what would be a sensible place in the romance arc even though the romance arc is not the main arc of the book at all” problem – but likewise, I don’t know why that is. I read a specific (somewhat broad; but still not representative) selection of old fiction; I read a very, very narrow selection of new fiction; so I don’t know whether the selection bias in either clumping has an effect, or if it’s mostly that writing conventions have changed (because whew, they have, too).

        And yes! I like books that don’t have a romance in them (at the very least, for a change!). Hard to search for that, though. :-)

        (also, yes on allowing characters to be human; I really love a lot of the De Horne Vaizey books, and she does a fairly good job in many books with character growth and also characters that have mixed good and bad qualities, but I think Molesworth does a somewhat better job of being actually gracious with truly unattractive character faults, rather than trying to excuse them or dooming the character to be The Bad One.)


  3. I’m another one who has always avoided reading anything by Mrs. Molesworth–even despite the recommendations of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, among many other fans (fictional and otherwise). The name conjures up visions of simpering heroines and Important Lessons. But this sounds much more human than I’d imagined; I might give it a try.


    • Human is definitely the right word. I’m deep in my third Mrs. Molesworth, and her trademark seems to be kids who get to be occasionally selfish or petty or heedless of other people’s feelings without being branded bad people for it. Both the author and the adult characters are incredibly understanding. It’s nice.



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