REVIEW: Grace Livingston Hill’s THE SUBSTITUTE GUEST, Or “Pilgrim and Stranger Man”

TheSubstituteGuestTo 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!)

11 thoughts on “REVIEW: Grace Livingston Hill’s THE SUBSTITUTE GUEST, Or “Pilgrim and Stranger Man”

  1. This sounds fascinating!

    I’m interested in a late 19th C American writer named Laura Jean Libbey, who gets pigeon-holed as a writer of factory girl fairy tales (which she certainly wrote), who seems to be writing proto-genre romances to me. Lots of virtuous girl resists the evil (fill in the blank) and then gets the bland but handsome and rich guy in the end, with lots of secret marriage and amnesia and kidnappings and tomfoolery along the way. In some ways, though, it’s Libbey herself who is interesting to me — how she managed her persona, dealt with copyright, etc., than the books themselves, which are silly (sometimes delightfully, sometimes gratingly so).

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    • I think Libbey’s books sound like they’d be a lot more fun than Hill! I felt that way about Braddon … she’s so cool. Have you read her? I’m sure you have. Hill is a weak copy of Gaskell in a novel like Ruth, which I must say I loved. But then I love Gaskell so much, I’d read one of her napkin scribbles. Hill is definitely fascinating, but oh boy, be prepared. I must say I’d probably read more of her, sorta of like eating eel or octopus or something of that ilk; you’re not sure why you’re doing so, but there’s a certain triumph to doing it.

      Hill is pretty interesting too. She wrote to support her daughters, married twice, the second time to a man ten years her junior, who abandoned her. And, of course, was wildly popular in her day.

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  2. I have read a lot of Grace Livingston Hill in the past, with my all time favorite being “The Finding of Jasper Holt’. It’s a western, published in 1909 (so I’m guessing the start of her career). Give it a try.

    I also read a bit of Florence Barkley. Early 20th century women’s fiction. “The Rosary’ and ‘The Mistress of Shenstone’ are the two that are most well known. Love conquering long odds and all that.

    Basically, though, I preferred my early 20th century romance to have a historic background–so I have read almost all of Baroness Orczy’s books, plus a lot of George Barr McCutcheon (the Graustark books). Though, in all honesty, the McCutcheon books were contemporary when they were written–they were just historicals by the time I first read them in the 60’s! (Ditto the Barkley books).

    As an aside, it is somewhat mind boggling to realize that Georgette Heyer’s first books were published in the 1920s—The Black Moth, The Masqueraders, These Old Shades…..making them (gasp!!)almost 90 years old.

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    • Thank you so very much for the suggestion! You’re a super reader! It’s so interesting to me: this early romance fiction. Even though I did a lot of cringing over Livingston Hill, I was fascinated by her. As for the Heyers, I’m always eager to check out the publication dates … hoping she’ll end up in the public domain. I do have quite a few titles in the TBR, from back when there was a sale on her birthday. I listened to The Black Moth and liked it … read These Old Shades and loved it!

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  3. I read at least a dozen of Hill’s books in the early 70s when I was 14-15 years old. Your review really brings that experience back. Every now and then I see one her books on sale or displayed at the library, but I’ve never been tempted to pick her up again. I’m glad I can say I’ve read her, and that’s about it. Not long after I first read Hill, I discovered Emilie Loring and Georgette Heyer, authors I enjoyed so much more. Thanks for this fascinating trip down memory lane.

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    • You are most welcome! Thank you for calling on Miss Bates and perusing and reading the reviews.
      Phew, Livingston Hill was … I wasn’t bored, but flabbergasted … but it is fascinating to me the thousands of women who read and might still read her (though diminished in numbers) and why and what they got out of it. I may read a few more :\ And I love that these writers are being re-issued.

      I did a little cursory search on Emilie Loring; unlike Livingston Hill, she’s not available in e-book … sob. I read Heyer’s These Old Shades last year and look forward to reading more. I loved it.

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  4. Coming out of lurkdom to say how much I enjoy your reviews and to butt into the conversation. I’ve read about twenty Grace Livingston Hill novels, not because I sought them out, but because of circumstance. Twenty years ago, first married and broke, we lived in a small town. The very small public library had a set of red-bound hardcovers that must have been donated by someone in the community. Since there was nothing else to read, I read them all and in a short space of time.
    Going from memory, I found several things appealing about her work. One, she had a great sense of story and pace. For instance, I still remember a book of hers called Exit Betty. It was about a young girl being forced to marry a horrible man for ??? reasons (can’t remember). Within the first chapter, she’s fainted as she walk up the aisle, managed to slip out the back of the church and boarded a train in her wedding dress being chased by thugs. Now if that doesn’t make you want to keep on reading, I don’t know what will. Girlfriend could write a hook.
    Second, her view of men – what it meant to be a good man was/is compelling. Virtue, honor, caring for others, striving to be good – all of those things are quite appealing in a man – at least to this reader. Really, some of her heroes are quite swoon-worthy (in looks as well as deeds) and those heroes always treated the heroine with respect, and in some cases, were even a little in awe of her.
    Third, as you’ve touched upon – I enjoyed the glimpses into the past. The trains. Streetcars. Walking blocks and blocks to use the phone. The Crash and the rich stockbrokers finding God. Going to the shore for two months to recuperate from the flu. And all of those picnics with fried chicken, salted almonds and olives. Her later books had heroes going off to war and the dreaded Dear John letters.
    Oddly, I didn’t mind Hill’s preaching since she’s just so sincere. Her brand of Christianity isn’t mine, but I respect how robust and tough-minded her characters are. No one takes the easy path. I know her books aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I can see why she was so popular for so many years.

    PS – Speaking of cups of tea. I *own* all 134 of Betty Neels. She’s another author who isn’t for everyone, but I find her the ultimate comfort read. I think GLH would have approved of the good work of those nurses and Dutch Doctors. Have you reviewed any of her books here? I’d love to read your thoughts. (And I’m out and proud Betty fan because of the gals at Uncrushable Jersey Dress. Love them)

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    • What a boon to Miss Bates that you’ve left the “lurk” behind and what a wonderful comment!

      I have to say, with you, the GLH book lingers, hangs out in my day job, even the bits of it I found off-putting. And I do confess here, I kept waiting, stalking her with one part of my mind … as I was reading … she’s going to say something offensive, racist, or so sexist, I’ll have to throw the Kindle and write to the publisher that I can’t, just can’t review this book. But I read it through to the end, was compelled by it … horrified at some stuff, but mesmerized. And yes, I know exactly what you mean about her brand of Christianity … it isn’t mine either … but it does have her characters seeing things through to their theologically correct end. They are like St. Peter on the road to Damascus: an experience so transforming, it changes EVERYTHING. They reminded me of Salvation Army workers, stalwart in our Canadian snow, ringing their bells … and my childhood in school, singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at my Protestant elementary school, even though the pupils were neither Protestant nor English-speaking, but boyohboy, did we learn the language and ethos lickety-split. GLH’s great line about not relaxing into your faith like a cushion. Great. Love the story of your small-town discovery.

      Her Christianity is theologically correct and, unlike some inspirational romances being written today, not mild and vague, or naïve, or Hallmarky (is that an adjective I just made?). As for the food, I really loved the doughnuts in this one: the Devereaux’s home was sustenance for the body and spirit of the hero. I just wish he’d kept those manly shoulders 😉 and interacted a bit more with the heroine.

      Okay, now you’ve made Miss Bates swoon with envy … ALL 134 Betty Neels! I’ve read two Betty Neels, Sister Peters In Amsterdam and Visiting Consultant and loved them to pieces: the nurses, the mysterious older hero, the work ethic, the rhythm of the day, of work and rest, the food! the food! the walks, the coffee breaks. Since, I give myself a restorative coffee break at the day job and drink to La Bette. Loved it all and the gals at UJD. (If you like La Bette, you may want to try out Charlotte Lamb? She’s not inspirational and more like a peevish Betty Neels.)

      So, my gushing for your thoughtful and so interesting comment: Miss Bates inclines her head to you.

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      • Thank you for making me feel welcome. I’m not one to comment much, but I love to listen.

        Yes, I’ve read a lot of Charlotte Lamb – she is not a comfort read, but her better stories pack quite a wallop. I don’t know if it’s the claustrophobic world she creates or how each character practically *vibrates* with feeling no matter what they’re doing (making that cup of Nescafe with shaking hand after a fraught evening), but I have found myself so immersed in her stories that I’m just as wrung out and ready for a happy ending as her heroines. Quite a feat in 120 pages. I just read Crescendo – it had a twist I wasn’t expecting. I love when that happens.

        Caroline’s Waterloo, The Promise of Happiness, Cassandra By Chance, and The Hasty Marriage are my top favorites of Betty Neels. As you can probably tell, I’m a category fan. I’ve been reading a lot historicals lately because that’s what this small town library stocks. (Different small town – we have new books – yay!) I don’t know as much about them, so I’ve enjoyed reading reviews (yours included) to see if my views match up and to gain new insights. You always make me think, so thanks for that.

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        • You are most welcome … one of the unexpected pleasures of donning Miss Bates has been that of making the acquaintance of such articulate, knowledgeable romance readers, such as you! So, thank you for reading … if I could do this full-time I’d be even happier, but the pesky day job (actually my day job is a blessing of goodness) but it does take a lot of time and energy!

          Love that Charlotte Lamb and all category romance: I’m a huge fan … sheepish admission, I even love the covers. I read Lamb’s Hot Blood, a tattered copy I bought for pennies at our church bazaar and loved it! What a boon to find a peevish heroine at 52 … reviewed it here too. Lots of fun with it.

          I checked out the digital Betty Neels TBR and am happy to report that all your faves are happily ensconced there waiting to be enjoyed. I tend to read an author’s work in the order that she wrote her books, enjoying the insights I get into her development, the peaks and ebbs. Am greatly looking forward to tackling the TBR once the AREs I’ve committed to are done in the next two months.

          That is the greatest of compliments: to elicit consideration. Wishing you the happiest of reading weeks and a library just chock-full of your reading heart’s desire!

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