Charming Middlebrow Lit: “Miss Plum and Miss Penny” by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Over the holidays, I read a great deal. It was very cold. There I was in the cozy but chilly living room, huddled under a blanket, reading a middlebrow novel and trying to shift The Cat Known As Undercover Cat from her position on top of my foot.

After I nudged her, she moved perhaps an inch. It was somewhat more comfortable. It was as much as I expected. Soon I was absorbed in my reading.

I love middlebrow English novels. Yet some of my friends do not read middlebrow -to the point they claim they do not know what it is.

My husband teased me: “What is middlebrow?”

“You know–highbrow, middlebrow.”

And before he could blink, I gave him a middlebrow book to read, Miss Plum and Miss Penny, by Dorothy Evelyn Smith. It was that, or bring the artificial tree up from the basement.

I checked on him at intervals. “It’s cozy,” he said. “Only the English could do this kind of thing.” Later he admitted, “It’s a good book.” And finally: “She’s much better than Barbara Pym.”

Even I don’t go that far! Barbara Pym’s books are classics, period.

But I loved Miss Plum and Miss Penny, published in 1959, a charming comedy that is slightly reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s books, with a dash of E. F. Benson. Dorothy Evelyn Smith has a gift for noting quaint details about village life and collecting them into quirky paragraphs that will make you howl with laughter. Most of the characters are spinsters and bachelors. Why that is funny I cannot quite say–perhaps because without sex there are fewer complications. And yet many of us women spent our youth doing everything we could NOT to be a spinster, so it is a paradox. Humorous, though.

The heroine, Alison Penny, is a contented woman who has always lived in the same place and followed the same routine. When she wakes up on her 40th birthday, she does not dwell on the number, and she and her servant, Ada, follow their usual birthday routine. Ada brings her breakfast in bed and gives her a knitted bed jacket for a gift. Alison pretends to be grateful, though Ada always knits her a bed jacket, and Alison doesn’t like bed jackets.

When Ada brings up the birthday mail, they are shattered by a lapse in their routine. For the first time in 20 years, Miss Penny’s old flame, George, who went to Canada after her parents persuaded her not to marry him, has not sent her a birthday letter. But, as these things often go, Alison ends up comforting Ada.

“And,” Alison continued, wiping the tears from Ada’s cheeks with her own clean handkerchief, “I have my dear, comfortable home, the Glee Club, the Women’s Institute, my Cubs, and several good friends. That is a great deal to have.”

Ada doesn’t buy it, though. Romance is missing–and Alison’s parents also drove off Ada’s boyfriend.

Is this cover illustration by Edward Ardizzone?

Perhaps the missing letter makes Alison more susceptible to others’ troubles. On her walk, Alison notices a crying woman walking into the duck pond. Alison rescues Miss Victoria Plum from suicide, and and tries in vain to find out where her home is. She learns Miss Plum has had a series of jobs as companions to old ladies, and is currently unemployed. Alison doesn’t particularly want the responsibility, but she brings Miss Plum back to the house for lack of a better solution. The problem: Once the weepy Miss Plum is installed, there is no getting rid of her. And it seems unkind to get rid of her before Christmas.

The situation is comic, and Alison’s friends are also very amusing in their responses to Miss Plum. The only ones immune to Miss Plum’s helpless charm are Alison and Ada. For some reason, even Alison’s confirmed bachelor friends enjoy the company of lachrymose Miss Plum, though they have promised to help evict her from Alison’s home. Hubert, the vicar, a widower with a recalcitrant son, Ronnie, who comes home for the holidays, is pleased when Miss Plum offers to help out with the Cubs meeting, and Stanley, a bachelor banker who wears corsets and insists on making his own sauces, is susceptible to her flattery. Both men are captivated by Miss Plum’s helplessness. You can imagine how this steams Alison and Alison.

You must read this book! And be sure not to miss the Old People’s Treat and the ice-skating scenes.

So much fun, and I look forward to reading more Dorothy Evelyn Smith.