My little Nelson’s Library edition of E.F. Benson’s Daisy’s Aunt (which I wrote about in 2016) has a section at the back where they advertise other titles that they publish. And that’s where I read the following description of Cynthia’s Way (1901):
Mrs Sidgwick has won a reputation as a writer of ingenious comedies. The heroine in this tale is an English girl of great wealth, who to amuse herself goes to Germany and masquerades as a poor governess. These studies of German home life are accurately observed and done with much humour and art, and in the background there is a charming love story.
A century and more after it was written, this marketing copy still worked its wonders on me, and I tracked down a copy of Cynthia’s Way. People masquerading as other people is always something I enjoy in a novel, especially in a good-natured comedy – and this novel is exactly that. Cynthia combines the whimsy of somebody who would find this deception amusing, with the straightforwardness of a heroine who has to deal with the household she enters. Here she finds a welcoming mother (who is an excellent cook), some slightly naughty young boys, and – most amusingly – Wanda. She has recently turned 18, and talks constantly of poetry and love and how she’d willingly kneel at the feet of a statue of Goethe all day. (When asked if she would do the same for any great poet’s statue, Cynthia replies simply “Certainly not”.)
Cynthia’s Way reminded me a lot of early Elizabeth von Arnim, and not just because of the period and the German setting. I could imagine her embracing this tone completely, particularly when no-nonsense Cynthia starts trying to sort out Wanda’s complicated love life. All while maintaining her innocent but complex deception, and starting to fall for the older son of the family, recently returned… Cynthia is not unused to proposals, but Adrian is something rather different.
It is all very diverting and very Edwardian, if you know what I mean. Cynthia’s disguise is not penetrated by anybody, and Sidgwick doesn’t introduce any of the detailed or unlikely plot twists that E.F. Benson would have done with this premise. Instead, it is simply used to set up the novel. After this, Sidgwick relies on her cast of characters to tell a story that is largely a portrait of a time, place, and class. It’s all gently amusing and easily swallowed whole in a day, if one can spare four or five hours of reading. Which, thankfully, today I could!