Monday, 2 May 2011

Four-Leaved Clover

Latest instalment in the continuing project to read the works of Maxwell Gray (Mary Gleed Tuttiett):

Four-Leaved Clover - An Everyday Romance (1901) is very much in the same genre as MG's earlier novels The Broken Tryst and The Reproach of Annesley: romance among the younger members of land-owning families in what’s recognisably the southern Isle of Wight. The main setting, the estate of Youngwoods, is on “a small table-land, protected on the north and east by downs, and looking south to the sea” in cycling distance of “Barming” (recalling “Barling” - Brading - in The House of Hidden Treasure). There’s also a crossover of character and setting with another MG work; the Sharlands of Nutcombe Place feature in her Isle of Wight dialect story The Widow’s Clock.

Chapter 1: Thrown Out. This introduces us to Marcia Ludlow, an orphaned single woman of independent means. Riding back from a hunt, her cousin Jack Tyndall is arguing the advantages of a match between Marcia and a visitor to the Tyndalls, Captain Norris Borman. But Marcia, at 25, has formed highly jaundiced views of marriage, saying of husbands that, “When they’re in love they are so abominably selfish, and exacting, and jealous!”, and in any case that she simply dislikes the apparently admirable soldier Borman. The two agree to differ, and they ride through the dusk back to Youngwoods, the estate of Marcia’s uncle, Mr Tyndall. As they enter the house, Marcia runs into another visitor, Major Hugh Beaumont, and promptly faints.
    Over the evening and the next day, during billiards, whist and musical soirees involving the other younger members of the Tyndall family, Mabel, Willoughby and Cecil, there’s much unresolved speculation about the reason for Marcia’s fainting.

Chapter 2: Singular Adventure of Captain Borman.  This takes us more into Borman’s thoughts. He is attracted to Marcia in a distinctly creepy and alpha way - he thinks:

“You shall come at my beck and go at my word, and know that I am ‘dominant master and absolute lord over the soul of one,’ and that one my Lady Disdain. You may elude me now, but not forever.”
“When a woman fears,” he was accustomed to say, “she is not far from love.”

Euw. Marcia evidently gets the vibes, as she continues to argue to Jack that Borman is cold and cruel, likening him to Napoleon. Jack, who also unsuccessfully courted Marcia in the past, doesn’t perceive it. One afternoon, however, while coming back from the village, Marcia hears an uproar from the paddock and finds Borman beating an unruly dog with an iron rod; he kicks a stable boy who tries to stop him. Marcia punches Borman in the face, and he falls into the muddy pond where, to general hilarity of the Tyndalls and village onlookers (and general disappointment that no-one has a “kodak”), he suffers the further indignity of being attacked by geese. After Borman has cleaned himself up, he makes a rapid and barbed farewell.

“I shall always remember this, Miss Ludlow,” he added in a gentle voice, as he turned away. “For I never forget a kindness!” he blazed out with a sudden savage glitter in his eyes.

Chapter 3: The Links. This begins with Jack taking Marcia to task for hitting Borman; he points out that she has made an enemy, and even argues that sporting dogs need to be severely disciplined. Again, the two agree to differ. After a sojourn abroad with another uncle, Marcia returns to Youngwoods in the spring. She’s pleased to see the Tyndalls, but not so pleased to see Borman, who is staying with relatives nearby. The whole family, along with Borman, go to picnic and play golf on the newly-opened links, and Marcia has a second near-faint on seeing Beaumont arriving from the neighbouring estate, Nutcombe Place, to join the group.

Chapter IV: Music and moonlight. This follows domestic relaxation over several days as Beaumont visits Youngwoods and, watched with jealousy by Borman, shares Wagner duets on the piano with Marcia. Borman becomes increasingly jealous as Marcia refuses to dance with him, via the transparent lie that her dance card is full.

Chapter V: Two Letters. Marcia receives an unstamped letter on Nutcombe Place stationery. The contents aren’t immediately revealed to the reader, but it is signed Hugh Beaumont. She is ecstatic, and replies with a love letter, arranging a meeting under a chestnut tree they both know, saying that “the four-leaved clover has come true at last”.
    Marcia and Beaumont meet, but he has disappointing news for her. By showing his handwriting, he demonstrates that the letter Marcia received is a skilful forgery. She is crushed, but the fake letter at least precipitates an honest discussion of their feelings (and an explanation of her fainting). She has been in love with him since, at a ball when she was 17, he presented her with a four-leaved clover. But he tells her that he is rather off the idea of love; having been rejected twice, he has thrown himself into his army career that makes marriage impossible; besides, he is too poor to consider marriage. Both saddened, they pledge friendship by swapping four-leaved clovers, and go their separate ways.

Chapter VI: Under the Chestnut. This reveals the authors of the fake letter; Borman and Willoughby, who have been listening, drop from the tree. Borman feels his revenge for the pond episode is complete, but Willoughby has a conscience about it. Marcia and Beaumont go their separate ways, corresponding politely, as Marcia visits London and Beaumont travels to the East with his regiment.

Chapter VII: The Luck of the Clover Passed On.  Marcia resumes her normal life at Youngwoods. She deduces who sent the hoax letter, on learning that Borman has a talent for imitating handwriting. Then, while visiting Lord and Lady Sharland at Nutcombe Place, she hears shocking news; one of their relatives, a Major Hugh Beaumont, has been killed in an ambush at the north west frontier (i.e. Afghanistan).

Chapter VIII: The Clover Missing. Marcia attends Beaumont’s funeral held at Nutcombe Church (held in absentia - his body has not been found). Most of her family and friends only guess at her feelings for Beaumont, though Borman, who has been observing more closely and also respected Beaumont as a soldier, is more aware of them and begins to regret his actions. Only the Sharlands know the depth of her grief, and they attempt to help her by taking her on a cruise of the Mediterranean on their yacht the Foam Bell. She accepts, but her health and mood decline, not helped by a telegram from Borman saying that Beaumont has been found; she sends an angry reply, asking him when he will stop persecuting her. Lord Sharland attempts to help Marcia by suggesting she take up astronomy and mathematics, as he did when depressed by the death of a woman he loved.

Chapter IX: Blood upon the Clover. This is a flashback following the four-leaved clover and Beaumont to the Northwest Frontier, where Beaumont endures months of hardship on a campaign. He has remained largely unscathed until, on the brink of success, he is shot from the saddle, and he and his horse fall into a ravine. His landing cushioned by undergrowth, he survives, is captured by the forces of a local chieftain, Thuja-ud-deen, and held for ransom. His only solace is the four-leaved clover, which he keeps in a pendant. After months of unsuccessful negotiations, he escapes. Meeting a British agent, he asks for “a cigar and a breakfast, and a tub of some clothes, and the news of the world” before collapsing.

Chapter X: The Clover Returned. This returns to Marcia aboard the Foam Bell. She has indeed taken up mathematics, and is acting as tutor to the Sharland’s children, but her health is still precarious. But one day Lord Sharland brings a letter from Borman, long-delayed because of their varying locations on the cruise. She is initially suspicious of it, but it proves to contain a handsome apology for his actions, and an assurance that his earlier telegram was not a lie. There are further letters, including one from Beaumont himself.
    Some months later, Marcia and Beaumont meet under the chestnut tree, both still shaky in health, and he pledges his love by presenting her with his Victoria Cross. Some further months later, recovered, they marry at Nutcombe Church, and all present wear four-leafed clover motifs. Beaumont is philosophical when he hears from Marcia about Willoughby’s confession about the forged letter:

“It was vile,” Beaumont commented ... “But the best luck I ever had. It all came from your defence of the dog. Without that we might have missed the luck of the four-leaved clover.”

Maxwell Gray is a biographically infuriating author. Very little is known about her early life, and yet what is findable usually finds its way into her novels in relatively undiluted form. The motif of the heroine's separation from a beloved soldier is a recurring one in her novels and stories. I'd love to know if it has any basis in her life.

- Ray

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