27 March 2023

A Crooked Cousin in a Cunning Cottage

Dove Cottage
Jan Hilliard [Hilda Kay Grant]
London: Abelard-Schulman, 1958
192 pages

Jan Hilliard's third novel, the curtain rises on the cramped three-room flat shared by underpaid, middle-aged bank clerk Homer Flynn, wife Dolly, and mother-in-law Mrs Bigelow. Sister-in-law Grace, a secretary at an advertising agency, lives across the hall. Grace's husband, Raymond, lost a foot in the Second World War, and with it the will to do much of anything. Mrs Bigelow thinks the world of Raymond, and very little of Homer.

Not long ago, Homer suffered the loss of Aunt Harriet, his late mother's sister. In absence of a will, solicitors Ramsey, Claxton and Stone have advised that he may be next of kin. Aunt Harriet was a widow. Her only child, Claude, ran away at sixteen, taking with him a fair amount of cash and jewellery belonging to his mother and her boarders. This crime was followed, years later, by newspaper accounts of Claude's ill-fated attempt to conquer Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Mrs Bigelow dreams that Claude's inheritance might provide just enough money to purchase a donut-making machine. She wants to start a business called "Granny's Greaseless Donuts." Dolly dares hope for $5000, all the while telling her husband that his expectations of $10,000 are far too high, and that he will only be disappointed. As it turns out, Homer inherits $250,000, roughly three million in today's dollars. Add this amount to the sale of Aunt Harriett's large Victorian house, bathed in the red lights of Lavinia Street. Mrs Bigelow is quick to question the source of the dead woman's wealth:

"I aways thought there was something funny about those boarders of hers. Her young ladies, she used to call them. 'What do they do?' I asked her, that time I went to see her. 'They're secretaries,' she said. 'Then why are they at home today?' I asked. 'It's their day off,' she told me. In the middle of the week."

Mrs Bagelow catches herself, demonstrating momentary restraint in recognition that, of a sudden, Homer has the upper hand in their relationship. She wants her son-in-law to move the family to the Riviera, but having spent a career in banking he is far too practical. Instead, Homer purchases a large country cottage for his wife and mother-in-law. Homer, who had always wanted to grow his own vegetables, fruits, and flowers, tends to his gardens with hired hand Mr Newby. Mrs Bigelow, who was never really interested in selling donuts, embraces the opportunity offered to become a landscape painter. In doing so, she attracts the romantic attention from neighbour George, an amiable wealthy widower who made his money selling fish. Dolly, the novel's least defined character, is just happy that her mother and husband are happy.

It's all very pleasant until the evening their cottage receives an unexpected, unkempt visitor. The man claims to be Aunt Harriett's son Claude, but is he? Homer, who hasn't seen his cousin in decades, is convinced. Claude – at least, the man calling himself Claude – lays claim to Aunt Harriett's riches, all the while admitting that there is a catch:
"I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. I'm going to lay my cards on the table. The minute I prove I'm Claude Jeffries, the police will move in, I'd spend the next twenty years behind bars. However," he raised his voice as Homer was about to say something, "there's no law saying a man can't inherit money because he happens to be in jail. You know of any such law?" 
   "I know very little about such things."
   "Take it from me, there's no such law. Now, the way I look at it Homer, we're both in a spot."
   "You're in a spot," Mrs. Bigelow said, but in a small voice. 
   "So here's what we'll do. I'll stay on here with you folks, share my inheritance with you. In return, you'll protect me, keep my true identity secret."
And so, Cousin Claude becomes "Claude Richards," Homer's childhood friend, back from adventures in Africa. Claude Richards is a travel writer, which serves to explain why Grace and Raymond, who are not in on the secret, had never before met the man. Because Claude believes the police are on his trail, he lies low under the pretence that he is recovering from "jungle fever." This, combined with Homer, Dolly, and Mrs Bigelow's understandable reluctance to discuss Claude only serves to make him a more intriguing figure, firing interest and desire in Grace and hired girl Eloise:
Knowing the value of first impressions, she did not want to be seen by him until tomorrow, when, her hair washed and set, she would be wearing her pink jersey sweater over her new brassière with the pointed cups.
Abelard-Schuman sold Dove Cottage as a "thoroughly delightful, completely comic and utterly frivolous novel." And it is. Enjoyable light entertainment, it reminded me of nothing so much as an afternoon attending local community theatre.

A good time was had by all.

About the author:

Object: A hardcover with Kelly green boards. The jacket illustration, depicting Claude, is by the talented William McLaren. Purchased in February from an Oxfordshire bookseller – price: £18.50 – it looks to have been a review copy.

Access: All evidence suggests that Dove Cottage enjoyed no more than one printing. The year after publication, the novel reappeared as a "new story of suspense" in the Star Weekly Magazine.

Star Weekly Magazine, 22 August 1959
There have been no paperback editions. There have been no translations.

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