REVIEW: Grace Livingston Hill’s BEAUTY FOR ASHES

Beauty For AshesGrace Livingston Hill’s Beauty For Ashes was published in 1935.  Not a happy year in America: Pres. Roosevelt’s New Deal valiantly addressed the Depression’s ravages, while the Dust Bowl resisted gains against deprivation, unemployment, and rural stagnation.  A give and take, a push and pull, of hope and despair.  The iconic representation of the Depression remains Dorothea Lange’s 1936 “Migrant Mother,” after the publication of Livingston Hill’s inspirational romance.  Amidst these hardships, Miss Bates likes to imagine that Livingston Hill’s novels provided comfort, respite, and hope for thousands of readers.  Miss Bates read one more Livingston Hill romance, reviewed here; she confronted the same problems in Beauty For Ashes as she did in the previous one.  However, she read Beauty with less consternation at the evangelical fervor (familiarity, in this case, breeds tolerance) and Manichaean characterization and greater appreciation for elements she acknowledged as worthy and interesting in her initial impression of Livingston Hill’s signature fiction.  She ended her previous review uncertain about reading more of GLH, but in this second volume, Miss Bates looks at GLH with affection, while recognizing that she remains “not for everyone.”

Beauty For Ashes starts out the story of Gloria Sutherland, but ends up the story of her sister, Vanna.  In that sense, Beauty For Ashes is structurally weak, as if Livingston Hill changed her mind, or realized that Gloria’s story had been resolved, and she needed to make up with a secondary romance.  The secondary romance takes over the second half of the novel. 

Nevertheless, initially, it is Gloria who has our attention.  A wealthy young woman engaged to a wealthy young man in 1930 New England, Gloria suffers a terrible blow when her fiancé, Stanhope Asher, is killed by his mistress’s jealous lover.  Gloria is devastated and falls into a depression; betrayed and disillusioned, Gloria’s hope and innocence are shattered, “The sound she made was not a sob.  It was more like a wounded animal getting to cover.”  Eschewing the false comforts of her superficial mother, Gloria visits, with her father, the farming community from which Mr. Sutherland hails. Again, as in The Substitute Guest, country living is clean, wholesome, and moral while city living is licentious, immoral, and dissipated.  In that sense, Livingston Hill’s fiction is representative of a recurring theme in American fiction, indeed the American psyche: the sanctuary to be found in retreating/returning to the homestead.  One that is also found in the opening and closing, for example, of the The Great Gatsby, which Miss Bates hopes to discuss with her readers, here at MBRR, next Sunday, Dec. 8th.

One of the strengths of Livingston Hill’s novel is how eloquently she conveys the soul-searching and sorrow of the innocent, heart-broken, Gloria.  As she says to her sister, Vanna, “This isn’t just feeling bad.  I can’t cry.  I think I’m bleeding inside.  And I’m seeing so many things I never understood before.”  Gloria calls this her “own first suffering.”  She experiences soul-destroying doubt and despair, ” … suddenly there descended upon her a sick feeling of desolation … like a great bird of prey, all the burden of her sorrow and the shame of Stan’s death came down upon her terror-stricken soul.”  Powerful stuff, the dark night of the soul.  Livingston Hill’s understanding of despair is no Hallmark calamity, but an animal growling in the night, “She buried her face in her pillow and let the whole wretched horror sweep over her soul and rack it … tears … flowing down in a torrent into her heart, tears of her life’s blood, and she wished … she could cry out her life and be done with it all.”  These descriptions are real, effective, and dark.  There are no “snap-out-it solutions” for Gloria … except one.

Into this torment walks our hero.  His heralds are the sounds of “whistling … clear, sweet notes like a bird in the early morning” and “a saw and a hammer – good, strong, sturdy blows – driving a nail.”  Music and the sound of carpentry, the proclaimers of Livingston Hill’s Christianity, the arms that will carry Gloria out of her despair and bring her to Jesus, in the incarnation of “a very good-looking young man with a tennis racket.”  Livingston Hill, though a Prohibitionist, is no Puritan when it comes to our hero and heroine’s taking joy in the pleasures of life: Gloria and Murray McCrae, our hero, take walks, read, play tennis, and enjoy music.  They also attend revival meetings and discuss the Bible.  They share their pains and sorrows.

However, Livingston Hill’s heroes, and there are two because of Vanna’s story, are strangely bodiless, strangely insubstantial, serving only as the messengers, the mouthpieces for her brand of evangelical Christianity.  They are idealized, somewhat etiolated.  On the other hand, they’re not dominant, aggressive, possessive, or arrogant.  They are caring, loving, respectful, and allow the heroines to decide life on their own terms.  Unfortunately, in Murray’s, and his friend, Robert’s, case, they’re also, at least initially, priggish.  Gloria too becomes less interesting as she allows Murray and God into her heart.

Yet, there’s Livingston Hill with only half a book.  Enter Gloria’s sister, Vanna; Murray’s farmer-friend, Robert Carroll; and a demonic seducer, Emory Zane.  Again the narrative takes on life as sin and heart-ache enter.  While Livingston Hill rightly renounces the nasties, she sure is good at writing about them, or rather she’s very good at writing about a dark night of the soul, with hero and God waiting on the other side.  Just as Vanna and the stalwart, pious farmer make tentative steps of attraction and care towards each other, Emory Zane, an older, worldly man who’d been pursuing Vanna at home, shows up.  In an attempt to pacify and eventually be rid of him, Vanna accepts to go on a ride with him. 

Like a nefarious villain from silent filmss, he takes off with her in his gleaming car and refuses to return.  They drive into the night; she begs him to return her to her sister, Murray, and especially Robert, but Zane is “a wild, snarling animal waiting to leap … She could not hope to pit her feeble girl strength against his malignant will.  She recalled certain things she had recently been hearing concerning Satan.”  Livingston Hill does something very interesting for a lady writing in 1935: she has Vanna save herself … with a little prayer thrown in; even while Murray and Robert look for her through the night, Vanna’s feeble girl strength is not as feeble as she originally believes, especially not when Vanna prays to Robert’s, and now her, God.

Vanna escapes Zane with stealth and intelligence, but has to make her way home by train.  When the train conductor leaves her by the tracks, in the dark, during a thunder and lightning storm, her trials begin.  She is cold, hungry, alone, and terrified.  The rain comes and she loses her shoes.  Her hands and feet bleeding (yes, folks, note symbolic significance), at her last strength, that is how Robert finds her and his happiness and her conversion are complete.  Further trials follow for their family, but the sisters and their fiancés can now weather any tribulations with love and equanimity and, most importantly, faith.

Livingston Hill’s re-issued novels are not to everyone’s taste, especially if you’re averse to her overwrought evangelical message.  Miss Bates, however, likes them better and better with every one she reads; herein is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Beauty For Ashes is being re-issued today, December 1st, by Barbour Books and may be found in the usual places and formats.

Miss Bates is grateful to Barbour Publishing for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.

Have you ever initially been averse to a writer, only to find yourself re-assessing your original impression and growing to enjoy her books?  Do tell, dear reader!