In Another Girl’s Shoes by Berta Ruckpublished 1916
There has been recent emphasis on the blog on popular fiction of the first half of the 20th Century (some overflow into other times): bestsellers of varying literary worth. This post was an overview, with links to some blog favourites, and I uncovered a new one specially to go with it, the impeccable tosh that is The Rosary by Florence L Barclay.
And then I discovered In Another Girl’s Shoes on my shelves, which fits very nicely into the category. It also reminded me of an author whom I had omitted from my original list: Ruby M Ayres, a prolific writer of romantic fiction. In this post on Ribbons and Laces, I pointed out that ’there is no Wikipedia entry on Ruby Ayres, although ironically, PG Wodehouse’s fictional romance novelist, Rosie M Banks (noted author of Only a Factory Girl) widely thought to be based on Ruby M Ayres, does have a Wiki entry.’
Berta Ruck does slightly better – her entry is here: the details of her life scanty, the awe-inspiring list of her books much longer. This one came early in her writing career, and after a shaky start I enjoyed it hugely.
It starts promisingly enough: a young woman jumps onto a train at the last minute, on the way to a job as a nursery-governess. In her carriage is a Vision:
Under her coat, which was lined with heliotrope satin, the Vision wore a pansy-purple costume with a little tight, impertinently-cut jacket, and a skirt that was as springy as a Highlander’s kilt; spreading out, it displayed quite an inch of purple silk stocking above those theatrical-looking boots. A large bouquet of imitation Russian violets fastened in at the waist-belt disengaged a strong perfume – not of violets but of Phul-Nana – as the Vision moved, rather fussily.This entrancing outfit enables Rose to claim later, faintly and unconvincingly, that the Vision was in ‘demi-mourning’ for her husband.
The Vision is a chatty cockney actress, Vera Vayne, who quickly tells our heroine Rose her story: she is a war widow, off to meet her late soldier husband’s family. It was a real wartime marriage – rushed, short and probably ill-advised. She doesn’t want to go: she wants to continue her career in films, and believes that the family will despise her (nothing in the rest of the book makes you think she is wrong about this). She finds out that Rose is alone in the world and has no money and only an un-promising job to go to. Vera immediately comes up with a plan that Rose should take her place, while she heads off across the Atlantic with Hollywood as her ultimate destination. Rose (nicely-raised) is naturally horrified by this and refuses instantly to have anything to do with the plan.
But Vera semi-tricks her into it – and then various opportunities to straighten this out are missed for a silly reasons. This is the weakest bit of the book: Rose has to be lovely so can’t go along with the scheme, but the book demands she is put into the role. So there is a long dull section of her trying to tell people, and an odd scene where an escaped prisoner frightens her, and then her kindly mistaken parents-in-law think she is just having a turn… this was all rather yawnsome and I was losing interest rapidly. But then things took a turn for the better. Everyone agrees that Rose is allowed to claim to be herself (I mean, this makes no sense) but will be treated as an adopted daughter by the bereaved parents. And then they all head off to Paris for a heavily-hinted-at visit to a ‘sick relative’. It’s not clear if everyone is meant to be as dim as Rose because it is obvious that
SLIGHT (but entirely predictable) SPOILER
young Captain George Meredith, reported dead, has been found alive, and IS the relative in Paris.
So eventually even Rose realizes she is in for what the reader has been wildly anticipating: the scene where she is handed back to her loving husband, who has no idea who she is.
As usual in books, everyone behaves in ludicrously unlikely ways, and doesn’t do the sensible thing at any point. An ex-girlfriend of George is also in Paris with them – very interested in the young woman who replaced her. Rose’s former boyfriend is hanging round with the potential to cause trouble. Everyone roams around meeting each other and having strange conversations, and it is tremendous fun. (One chapter is called ‘One tete-a-tete after another’)
Nearly everyone has only good intentions, but they are all protecting each other and trying to make everything work out. There is some most unexpected melodrama at the end, and – SPOILER AGAIN – a happy ending for nearly everyone.
Rose starts the book being annoying and having what the revered Georgette Heyer used to call ‘missish airs’ but improves dramatically into a much better and more appealing young woman. She indulges in some very interesting and modern-sounding considerations of money and class and sex, and the way they constrain women. My favourite part of the book came when George wonders if she is an adventuress, and she says she isn’t nearly as offended as she should be, because she quite likes the idea that someone thinks her that interesting.
The book is of course snobbish and class-ridden in the extreme, and sadly gets rid early on of the most interesting character: Vera the Vision – though we get a splendid glimpse of her in a film later on. You do feel there could be an even better book about her: I very much liked to think what, say, Margery Sharp would have done with her – she could have morphed into the wonderful Julia from The Nutmeg Tree (a great blog favourite).
But Rose turned out well, and had a very proper admiration for clothes, and no silly scruples about accepting an expensive new wardrobe from the duped and wrongly-claimed relations. All her new clothes, of course, more dainty and pink and gossamer than the kind of garments The Vision chose.
As Rose so rightly says:
People think that new and beautiful clothes make one self-conscious. Perhaps they may have this effect on men, the eccentric creatures! But it is the want of new and beautiful clothes that makes a woman conscious of herself and her shortcomings. The possession of a faultless frock is so much more helpful, protecting, stimulating than that of the cleverest conscience. At all events, I had both!And – look at the date this was published – all this is happening in the middle of the First World War, which is not underplayed. Captain George says he trained with 31 other men at Sandhurst, and there are only 2 of them still left. Apparently it was still possible easily to make a trip to Paris and buy a lovely new trousseau, but the characters notice all the time small details about the conflict going on not so far away.
Ruck makes it work. This one was very good tosh, once I had got past the opening few chapters.
Impersonating a husband or wife comes up in a number of books and films over the years, and though last year on the blog I took moral exception to a similar line in Charlotte Armstrong’s The Unsuspected (gaslighting!), it is usually a promising diversion, particularly when the writer brings in amnesia as a side order. And another plot turn here is almost identical with one in the recent Piper in the Wind. My lips are sealed of course.
Clothes from the era, from the NYPL collection.
Phul Nana was ‘at the time of the Great War, the best-selling fragrance in the UK’. The name means 'lovely flower' in Hindi. First created in 1891, the fragrance was ‘unusual for its time mixing traditional feminine floral notes with herbaceous and aromatic notes’, a precursor to later Oriental fragrances. And, it is still available now.