Much Dithering is both the title of a novel by Dorothy Lambert, and the name of the village where the action takes place. The name, possibly suggested by its proximity to the River Waver, gives a sense of the landscape we’re in: midcentury small-village whimsy, with a strong strain of romance. Published in 1938, the book is a lighthearted work, republished this month by Dean Street Press.
The plot elements of Much Dithering reminded me rather of E.F. Benson’s Tilling novels. A group of people who think of themselves as the “old, settled families” of a small area, some moneyed new arrivals, some socially-charged tea-parties, dubious stories from Indian campaigns, and a jewel robbery. The overall shape, however, is much les satirical and more romantic.
The village life is more of a backdrop to the story of the central figure, Jocelyn. Having been widowed at a young age, she lives in the Dower House, doing good works in the parish and awaiting the need to move when the heir to her dead husband’s estate arrives back from Australia. Her awful man-eating mother appears from London for visits which neither of them enjoy much, and insists that she never refer to her as “mother” in front of the men she’s trying to vamp. Too ageing a word altogether.
But, this being romantic fiction, three men end enraptured by Jocelyn’s quiet charms. There is relatively little doubt, after the first few chapters, whom she’ll end up with, but the book is fun and charming, and made for a ready enjoyable afternoon’s read.
It’s perhaps a bit more complex than I’m making it sound. Without spoiling the plot, there’s a interesting parody and inversion of a couple of detective and mystery tropes along the way. The events in the village are interestingly complicated by people’s previous live and entanglements in London, as they find they can’t play the same roles in the country as they’re used to in town. This adds a sense that most people in Much Dithering are playing a part of some sort or another, even when they’re not deliberately trying to deceive (which they often are).
The idea of simple, quiet English country life is decidedly ironised by the intrigues, the mystery as to who is really who, and the snobbery over who belongs in the village. Modern readers will probably find themselves brought up short – as I was – by how acceptable it still was in the late 1930s to refer to Jewish or Italian ancestry as a funny or embarrassing fact. The people who make slighting references to this are clearly “wrong” to do so, in the novel’s moral scheme, but it’s an awkward and unpleasant tone so late in the era.
Overall, Doris Lambert’s book is great fun. Its milieu is less deeply drawn than Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire, and less deeply provincial than Elizabeth Fair’s villages, but Much Dithering is well worth a visit.