To appreciate Livingston Hill’s 1936 The Substitute Guest, one must read it as an artefact. Thus did Miss Bates and was equally fascinated and horrified; the experience was akin to looking at a train wreck, wanting to look away yet unable to. To the general romance reader, this author will have little appeal. To the historian and critic of the romance genre, she is of consequence. To the reader of inspirational romance, she may prove engrossing, if your tastes run to heavy-handed religious content, religious conversions that rival a non-inspirational’s heightened love-scene diction, and characters reminiscent of 1930s Hollywood melodrama. To the women’s studies scholar, this will provide a spellbinding picture of the idealized fantasies of the thousands of women who read Hill. For Miss Bates, reading her was like reading an evangelical Betty Neels, though Neels is, by far, the better writer. (Miss Bates would add that both have a penchant for writing good food descriptions … and in 1936, at the height of the Depression, this too may have been a fantasy for some readers.) Hill’s narrative (and she wrote over a hundred) is the epitome of all things being well that end well. This is not truer anywhere, Hill asserts, than in her vision of the Christian narrative as reflecting her time, place, and concerns.
The Substitute Guest centres around the physical and spiritual journey of the hero, Alan Monteith. The novel opens on Christmas Eve in the “late 1920s.” (Please keep in mind that at the time of publication, this novel was contemporary to its readers.) Alan, a lawyer, delivers the deed to a house to his friend, Dr. Mac Sargent, who plans to surprise his wife with it for Christmas. Unfortunately, an urgent situation with a patient, the loss of life-and-death medication, will prevent him from doing so. Alan volunteers to deliver the medication, in his place, to an isolated mountain home in the midst of a terrible snowstorm.
Making his way up the unnamed mountain, car trouble and inclement weather land him at the door of the pious and succouring Devereaux family. The son, Lance, insists on helping Alan reach the sick woman. They embark on the treacherous journey, leaving Lance’s parents and sister and our heroine, Daryl, to fret and pray over them. Thus are Daryl and Alan brought together, though Livingston Hill throws a boyfriend, Harold, and girlfriend, Demeter, to create tension and provide worldly counterpoints to Daryl’s piety and Alan’s conversion. Harold and Demeter are peevish, rapacious, and capital-S Sinful. Their nastiness is exaggerated, stylized, and caricaturish. How Daryl and Alan reject them and acknowledge God and each other as primary is the impetus of Livingston Hill’s proselytizing message. Miss Bates was mesmerized by this narrative, but readers may be appalled at its obvious didacticism.
The first block to Livingston Hill’s novel, which Miss Bates found alienating, was the intrusive narrative voice and stilted dialogue. The Substitute Guest is written in the third person. Unlike many third-person narrations that we are accustomed to today, Livingston Hill comments on the action and characters. While we are used to third-person narrators fading into the background and/or by inhabiting the “heads” of the characters, Livingston Hill’s narrative voice is annoyingly invasive. On many occasions, Miss Bates cringed at this device, but tried to be forgiving in light of Livingston Hill’s context and purpose. Miss Bates’ll give you one snippet of teeth-grinding kitsch to illustrate her point. As Daryl and Mother Devereaux (that’s the only name we know her by!) pray for the two young men struggling through the snow, the narrative voice comments on the father’s role, “Brave Father, keeping up the courage of his little frightened women household.” Ouch. Sentimental, belittling … distasteful. And regarding the stilted dialogue? Demeter, Alan’s original “siren” love interest, enticing him to sin, is annoyed when he misses a party to deliver the medicine to the dying woman. She exclaims, “he would do foolish philanthropic things like that.” Really, how vexing. Miss Bates’s favourite line, however, goes to Harold, the devil-may-care boyfriend, who says to Daryl when she reprimands him for making too merry on Christmas Eve, “You silly little pretty Puritan.” Miss Bates has read many interesting villains’ epithets for the heroines of romance novels, but who can beat this one!
Livingston Hill’s characters fall into two polar categories: they are idealized, or demonized. Harold and Demeter (such a benign character from Greek mythology, with her maternal love and foiling of the lugubrious Hades, to be coloured a femme fatale!), rivals for our heroine’s and hero’s affections, are demonized, with the worst of the metaphors falling to Demeter. She is likened to a Jezebel, a serpent, with its reference to the snake’s tempting of Eve in the Garden. Harold, on the other hand, is a goofball who can’t hold his liquor. But they definitely hold the lure of worldly temptation for Daryl and Alan, standing in for the devil and his seductions.
The most interesting character is the hero, Alan Monteith, but he becomes less so as he nears God. When we are introduced to him, there is a fleshy, substantial presence to him. He is tall, broad-shouldered, stalwart. The Devereaux, and Daryl in particular, notice his strong build. Ah, thought Miss Bates, a lovely centurion … but he loses flesh and substance as the narrative progresses. His bodily presence diminishes as he is brought to a born-again experience by the Devereaux. Daryl, on the other hand, who is already born again, is described in terms of her “starry” blue eyes. She too does not have a fleshy presence, coming across as a pious Betty Boop. The hero reminds Miss Bates of Carroll’s Chesire cat … disappearing bit by bit till all that remains is a halo of piety.
Snark aside, Miss Bates found some merit in this narrative, especially in the sequence when Lance and Alan are out in the storm, which serves as a Christian allegory. Alan is the pilgrim and stranger, the Devereaux acting as the good Samaritans to his helplessness and need. There is something quite lovely in the descriptions and account and in Alan’s transformative experience on the mountain (with its allusions to Sinai, Tabor, etc.): ” … parts of him that suddenly seemed dead. He hadn’t been aware of it, when they died; it must have happened somewhere out there on the mountain when they were so cold.” Alan’s numbness and cold, wet feet, his vulnerability and disorientation are akin to a child-like state: the Devereaux bring him to his true fully human state as a born-again Christian and his feelings for Daryl seal it.
If there’s one more thing to be said for Livingston Hill’s Substitute Guest (so called because Alan becomes the Devereaux’s guest by the storm’s circumstance, as well as Harold’s absence because of a drinking bout) is its unabashed and knowledgeable theology. This is no reticent and etiolated Christianity, but a full-on treatment. Miss Bates’s favourite line, and it is truly very good, is spoken by Mother Devereaux when she admonishes Daryl for dwelling on her disappointment over Harold’s absence: “My child, have you been thinking to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ by arranging circumstances around yourself like cushions and settling down comfortably in them?” Indeed, this is a Christian romance founded on Plymouth rock, not the sand of laissez-faire Christianity.
These characters are, as Harold rightly pegs Daryl, Puritanical, and no where is that more evident than in their attitudes toward alcohol. There is no Victorian tippling here, no medicinal purpose acceptable for indulging in the demon “drink.” Livingston Hill is obviously coming from the American temperance movement. Witness Alan’s reaction to attending a party after his conversion, ” … his soul revolted at the thought. What a contrast it would be. Drinking and dancing and unholy riotous music … the stern realities of life and death had given him a new sense of values.” These values are found in the Devereaux’s actions of abstinence, restraint, simplicity of life style, care for others, missionary work, and the extending of hospitality and care to the stranger and sojourner. Though the Puritanical aspects of Livingston Hill’s Christianity do not appeal to everyone, there is much here of merit and worth. And that, dear reader, is Miss Bates’s verdict on this novel: it will not appeal to all, but there is merit and worth here for those who care to make the effort. And it will take effort and a forgiving attitude.
In the end, the Devereaux and Daryl and Alan, in particular, go off into the Christian sunset to live out their lives according to a charismatic form of Christianity. Livingston Hill’s description of it, like its “spirit-filled,” ecstatic ethos can only tell us what it is Not. In Alan’s assessment after his born-again experience, he thinks “The Christians he had known before had been ordinary formal Christians, who went to church, sometimes twice on Sundays, gave to good causes, were respected in the community, and upheld all kinds of good works. That was all.” (Italics, Miss Bates’s.) Miss Bates will let that final statement stand on its own. She will not rate this novel because, in a sense, it would be unfair to do so. You will have to decide for yourself, dear reader, if this is your cuppa, but she says it’s worth reading one Livingston Hill if you’re interested in one of the romance genre’s most interesting, if unpalatable, incarnations. Miss Bates wanted to read one after reading Just Janga’s great series of posts on her “My Mother’s Books.” As for Miss Bates, you might see another loquacious review of a Livingston Hill novel … or you might not. She’s still trying to work through it.
Miss Bates is grateful to Barbour Books for an ARE via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. The Substitute Guest was re-issued on Sept. 1st and may be found in the usual places and formats.
What of you, dear reader, have you picked up a romance written over fifty, or sixty, or more years ago? How did you react to it? (Miss Bates will never forget reading Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South and the revelatory experience it was at the time, something along the lines of “there is literary life beyond Dickens;” then, she discovered figures like Mary Elizabeth Braddon and hasn’t looked back since … hence, why Miss Bates Reads Romance!)