This is a story about a "mixed marriage" that failed. The protagonists are NOT of different races, or religions. They are NOT a "gay" couple, one of whose members discovers they are not really gay. The two people involved do NOT even come from different areas of the world. Nope. Although they meet in Italy to begin with, the two discover that they actually come from the same country, (England). Yet, this is indeed a "mixed" marriage, because the man is from the leisured, related-to-the-aristocracy class, and the woman is a "shop-girl" -- a middle-class miss "on holiday" from her job in a milliner's shop.
The two meet, become transfixed with each other, and marry. You might think this is a beginning to a "Cinderella" type tale, but, sadly, it is not. The woman, ("Laura Burton"), feels totally out of her element with most of her husband's friends, relatives, and life-stye, and the man, ("Hugh Salinger"), becomes embarressed at Laura's inablity to "fit in" with his "set" of people, (no matter how hard she tries). Adding to this discomfort are the manners of
Laura's mother and sister, when they come to visit. (If Laura is oirtrated as being as lady-like as a middle-class person of the era can be, her mother -- and especially, her sister, Gladys, are shown to be as coarse as middle class people of the time are supposed to be.)
Laura does not like hunting or shooting. She plays badly at cards, and doesn't know many of the answers at parlour games. Her husband fnally goes to these parties alone. Laura is worried she is embarrasssing and disgracing this husband she still loves....
Other characters are Hugh's mother, his sister, his rich aunt and uncle, his sympathetic friend, and his very unsympathetic sister... All are deftly described by word and action, and become three-dimensional, as do the main protagonists...
"Stella" is a woman Hugh has known all his life. She is interestingly, and surpirsingly sympathetically portrayed.
Personally, I am NOT one to advise people to go to marriage councillors -- but whilst reading this book, my mind literally SCREAMED that they should have gone to such a person to iron out their difficulties. The continuing "Ladies' Home Journal" series, 'Can This Marriage Be Saved?', also came to my mind. Alas, in the 1900s, in which era this novel is placed, neither marriage counsellors, nor the series, 'Can This Marriage Be Saved?' was extant, (although I believe that the magazine, "Ladies' Home Journal' did exist....for American readers, at least.) Thoughts of the Prince Charles--Princess Diana--Lady Camilla Bowles triangle also came to my mind. But Stella is far kinder and more sympathetic than Lady Camilla, and Hugh and Laura far more hiding of their own feelings, and far more considerate of each other's feelings, than were the Prince and Princess of Wales....
In the recent, (2004), marriage between Crown Prince Frederic of Denmark, and Mary Donaldson of Tasmania, the now Princess Mary has become totally Danish -- and is even reported to grope for words in English. There has also been a spate of successful Royal-Commoner marriages in other countries, as well. In these well-publicised, real life "Cinderella stories", I am sure that many adjustments were made by both parties concerned, and, to a lesser extent, their friends and relatives. Of course, the "commoner" in thse marriages n doubt had to make the most adjustments -- but the poor, ional "Laura Burton", of this book, though she tries SO hard to please her husband and her husband's family, simply cannot.
Laura, in this book, acts, at times, even more "nobly" than the rich, titled, and near-titled "set" she has married into. Though aware of her own feelings, she is mostly CONCERNED with how others -- her mother, her sister, her husband, and her husband's friends and family feel. She continues to love her husband, but realizes that he may be falling out of love with her. Instead of trying to make him re-fall in love with her, she tries to do the things that will make HIM the most happy. Laura is truly a sterling character, (and, as I have mentioned, a "noble" one, when one views her actions), but she is SO unhappy, because she feels HER actions are making her husband unhappy.
Attitudes change with generations. Laura's "middle-class" values, of thrift and of trying to avoid the "seamy" side of life, are considered rather "gauche" by her husband and most of those in his "mileau". Yet, today, even Queen Elizabeth II is famous for her thrify habits, and, most people today have sympathy for those in "seamy" circumstances through no fault of their own, and do NOT regard them, as Hugh at one point does, as something to be tolerated in other people, and even find amusing in them.
Laura, noble to the end, finds an ending solution which is worthy of the most classic of Greek tragedies. HOW I wished, as I read this book, that I could somehow whisk poor Laura away to the year 2010 -- when, amongst other things, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden will marry the love of her life....who just happens to be her former personal trainer!
Reading this book makes one grateful that one lives today. Social staratification has not completely disappeared -- but it is far less stringent than in the past. In fact, had this story taken place between the 1930's and the 2000s, Laura and Hugh might, indeed, have been classmates at the same university, instead of meeting as a vacationing shop-girl and indolent, (though creative), nephew of an English Lord. As in all of Heyer's books, this one is filled with much food for thought. However, this book -- which does NOT have any of the happy Regency froth, and NONE pf the humour and hilarious situations in her other regency novels -- allows one to think more deeply and soberly on the messages preseented, and of one's own interpretation of them. Was it in Heyer's mind to write a story equivalent to the words in 'My Fair Lady', to "....prevent other presumptuous flower-girls" from rising above their station? I have read that Heyer, after she had written this book, tried to keep it from becoming well-known. Did she then, after having written this book, with this moral, have a change of heart?
This is a great book for social theorizing, and for discussions on class-consciousness, (a rarely discusssed topin -- in fact, one of the last 'taboos' there is!), and how mores have changed -- and if they have changed, at all, and for the better or worse. This is a very sober, yet very well-written book. As always, Heyer makes her characters, "stand out in high relief".
The copy I read is published by Buccaneer Books, Cutchogue, New York. On the page facing the title page, are 9 titles also "by the same author". I perhaps have not studied or read as much of Geogette Heyer's works as I should, or would have wished, but five of these titles are not as familiar to me as the other four titles are. The "unknown-to-me-till-now" titles are: "The Great Roxhynthe", "Simon The Coldheart", "Instead Of The Thorn", "Pastel", and "Helen". I notice that the last two are listed here on Amazon as books read by those who read "Barren Corn" -- but the others? I'm sure they ARE available -- but I have not seen them, (and "Pastel" and "Helen", as well), listed as often as Heyer's oter works are. These lesser-known, (at least to me) titles written by Heyer bear looking into! Perhaps they have as much sober "food for thought" as "Barren Corn"? Hmmm.... They DO need looking-into, at any rate....!
AT LEAST one of Heyer's books NEEDS to be made into a movie. ("The Reluctant Widow" was, I have read -- but Heyer, present at the filming, hated the finished product, and so made it impossible for any other of her works to be made into movies.) Although I do not think that the sober tragedy that is "Barren Corn" should be the one (first) to be filmed, I definitely think ONE (other) of her works should be. Perhaps the delightful froth that is "April Lady", "Fredericka", or "Faro's Daughter"? And to, perhaps, pursuade Heyer's heirs to allow this, a goodly portion of the profits from this film could go to Ms. Heyer's favourite charities?
Just a thought. And if the first, (and perhaps second and third), cinema versions of (happier) Heyer novels -- filmed EXACTLY as they are written in her books -- are successful, then perhaps, just perhaps, the public will be ready for a cinema version of this superb, sober, thoughtful, character-driven period piece: "Barren Corn".