REVIEW: Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp
Dear Ms. Clapp:
There are times when the midsummer sun strikes cold, and when the leaping flames of a hearthfire give no heat. Times when the chill within us comes not from fears we know, but from fears unknown – and forever unknowable.
So begins your brilliant and spooky Jane-Emily. Originally published in 1971, I first read Jane-Emily sometime around 1978. My copy had a pink cover that literally frayed off of the book, I read it so many times.
It is 1912. Louisa Amory is 18, and is accompanying her beloved nine year old niece, Jane, from Milton, New Hampshire to Lynn, where her grandmother lives. Jane is newly an orphan, having lost her parents in an automobile crash. Her mother, Charlotte, was Louisa’s sister, and the family has decided that spending the summer with her Grandmother Canfield might be a good distraction for Jane. Thus, Louisa’s parents decide that she’ll go with Jane to care for her over the summer. Louisa is most put out, as her romance with Martin Driscoll is in full bloom, and she is sure that she’ll be overcome by loneliness and boredom. But she dutifully escorts Jane to Lynn and settles into Canfield House.
Being with her Grandmother does indeed bring Jane from her shell. Canfield House has a large garden where Jane frequently plays, particularly loving the reflecting ball centered in the garden. As Louisa and Jane settle into their life in Lynn, they learn the story of Jane’s aunt, Emily, who died when she was young. Emily was Jane’s father’s younger sister, and by all accounts spoiled rotten. She was a mercurial, spoiled child and the apple of her father’s eye. So much so, that it was clear to all who knew them that Mr. Canfield loved Emily more than he even loved his own wife. Thus, Emily was raised indulged to the point of spoiling. She was prone to throwing fits of temper, and often become completely intractable if she didn’t get her way.
Jane develops what Louisa considers to be a very unhealthy obsession with Emily, often saying that she seems Emily’s face in the reflecting ball when she looks into it, and going so far as to compose a poem which she said “just came to her” but was in fact written years before by Emily. Louisa is worried about this unhealthy preoccupation with Emily, but Jane has suffered so much loss, and Louisa attributes part of her behavior to that. Louisa is also preoccupied with missing her love, Martin, who writes her every day and composes poetry for her. But when Mrs. Canfield invites Dr. Adam Frost, a childhood friend of Emily’s, to the house for dinner, Louisa is fascinated. Dr. Frost is handsome and well traveled and definitely taken with Louisa. As she gets to know him, the two begin to fall in love. The deeper Adam and Louisa fall into love, and the longer Jane is at Canfield House, the more prevalent the topic of Emily becomes. It’s almost as if she’s real. And she doesn’t seem too happy about Jane being at Canfield House nor about Louisa falling in love with Adam.
In thinking about it, this might have been my very first romance. While the story focuses on Jane and Emily’s past, the story is told by Louisa, and her romance with Adam is a big part of the story. The story is absolutely charming with wonderful descriptions of life in 1912 (riding in an automobile for the first time ever, going to a bandstand to celebrate the 4th of July, formal dinners and dresses and frippery). Throughout the story, Clapp builds a wonderful sense of foreboding, so that by the time the truth comes out about Emily and the story’s climax rolls around, the reader has a knot in their stomach. It’s a beautifully crafted story, full of chills and scares, but not so much that a younger reader would be terrified. Having not read it since I was a young teen, I wondered at how well it would hold up. I’m delighted to say that I loved every moment of re-reading it. It’s still a well written entertaining yarn, and not just for 8-year old me, for 43-year old me as well. Final grade: A