Cover illustration by Bern Smith
When Sally gave up her hospital career to go home and nurse her sister Jeannie, she was making a bigger sacrifice than anyone knew; for Jean had married the man Sally loved. All the same, she looked forward to seeing her beloved Cumberland again; she could even visit the farm that was her own property and meet the tenant who had such a reputation for being dour and difficult.
“The awful thing about stalking out in a temper, she reflected with a rueful grimace, is that sooner or later you have to go back.”
“In these circumstances, I’m not a woman, I’m a nurse. There is all the difference in the world.”
“The eyes of the man at the door rested on Sally, and she was worth it.”
“It’s them we injure as we hates the most.”
“The capacity of the average man for making a martyr of himself is quite remarkable and doesn’t impress me.”
“Love needs a dash of pity to sharpen it, like lemon juice in a veal stuffing.”
“So long as someone needs a woman she is alive; the deadly thing is for no one to need her.”
“That’s what happens to all the big moments of our lives, she thought with bitter amusement. Someone butts in with a plate of meat-paste sandwiches and the moment is over.”
It’s not often that we meet a heroine like Sally Gaskell, who is a very feisty gal excelling at her job in a London hospital. She’d essentially run away from home three years ago after her sister Jean had married Chris Hardrigg, the hunky farmer she herself had fallen in love with. But now Jean has fallen—from the hayloft, that is—and suffered an unspecified back injury that has left her unable to walk at present, though six months of hard therapy should put her to rights.
Off Sally goes to move into Chris and Jean’s home to help with Jean’s recovery. Though Sally seems to feel she has no choice in leaving her job to care for Jean, she also makes much of her loss of a rewarding career: “She did love it here; the work, the companionship, the patients …. But it seemed that Jean was to take everything from her. Chris—and now the career into which she had put so much of herself.”
Once home, she finds that Chris is actually a somewhat stodgy “Victorian papa.” “I let your undeniably handsome face come between me and reality,” she tells him candidly, confessing her youthful infatuation as well as the fact that she no longer yearns for him tragically. In her forthright manner, she also lets him know that Jean is never going to walk again, because neither of them want her to—“Doesn’t it suit you better to have an invalid wife? The normal, day-to-day husband and wife relationship is suspended until she is better.” There’s a problem in their relationship that neither wants to face: Chris saw a woman kissing a married man and thinks it was Jean—when it was his sister Heather wearing Jean’s coat. Heather has made Jean swear not to tell Chris the truth, because she refuses to believe the cost her adventuring has had on her brother’s marriage and is afraid that confessing the truth will make Chris despise her. But Sally’s attempt to talk sense into everyone and bring the pair together goes nowhere, as do her efforts at physical therapy: Everyone just yells and cries at her “cruelty,” and back Jean goes to bed.
Meanwhile, Sally is falling into a tempestuous relationship with Ross More, who is a tenant on the farm she herself owns, inherited from her grandfather. More is a stubborn, reluctant outsider to the insular rural community, full of new-fangled ideas and insensitive to local traditions, but Sally campaigns on his behalf amongst the townspeople and badgers him spiritedly to get him off his high horse and be a little nicer to everyone. Though Ross has a reputation around town as a big grouch, she is never frightened by him, instead always doing the right thing, even if they do come to blows on a regular basis: “I’ve eaten fiercer men than Ross for breakfast,” she says, and we can believe her—all that time on Men’s Surgical back in London taught her a trick or two.
And so we watch this pair box around each other, through farming crises and neighborhood conflicts, into the serial misunderstandings that must crop up in a romance novel if eventually they are to bulldozed over. Marginal characters in this book are singular, well-drawn individuals who add a lot of zest to the story, which moves organically and never feels plodding or mechanical. There’s a good bit of humor in this story, such as in: “Something like a solid ice-flow swept past him. It was Sally,” and never mind that this typo-stricken novel has misspelled floe, or that you run headlong into the attempts to write dialect as if you’ve hit a barn door (“He ay dead, miss? ’E cor be, bat he’m so still.”). With writing that can sparkle on occasion, if not often enough, and an ending that literally brought tears to my eyes, this is a refreshing story with a rare heroine who really deserves to be one, falling for a man who really deserves it. How rare is that?