“It seems to me,” said Mrs. Adams, “that I know more about your sisters than I do about you. I feel more acquainted with them at present, than with you.”
“That’s so, too,” said Prudence, nodding. “But they are the ones that really count, you know. I’m just little Prudence of the Parsonage—but the others!”
The small town of Mount Mark, Iowa, looks on with interest as the new Methodist minister, the Reverend Mr Starr, moves into the parsonage with his brood of daughters. It is five years since Mrs Starr died, and the combined duties of mother and housekeeper have fallen to the eldest daughter, Prudence, who is now nineteen. Following her are sixteen-year-old Fairy, the clever one of the family; the thirteen-year-old twins, Lark and Carol, who specialise in stories and jokes; and solemn, nine-year-old Constance.
Delighted with their new posting, which comes with a large, rambling old house with a barn attached just made for games, the Starr family tries to settle into its new life, as the people of Mount Mark try in turn to adapt to this rambunctious brood, and a minister who likes jumping fences and romping with his family. The members of the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society shake their heads over Prudence and her unconventional household methods, but have to concede that she discharges her various duties with aplomb – except, perhaps, for certain episodes involving the twins, who have a talent for trouble.
Prudence has long since made up her mind that raising her sisters and getting them settled in life is her particular sacred trust, and that helping them to achieve their dreams must be the focus of her life, even at the cost of her own. Although Mr Starr expresses his misgivings over her selfless scheme, Prudence remains serenely committed to it until a bicycling accident throws her unexpectedly into acquaintanceship with a young man named Jerrold Harmer. Jerry has no doubt about his own feelings for Prudence, but she in her innocence is for some time unaware of hers for him – and when realisation dawns, Prudence finds herself, for the first time in her life, caught in a bitter struggle between her inclination and her duty…
Even though I feel rather churlish saying so, I have to admit that Prudence Of The Parsonage didn’t really work for me – although the fact that it didn’t probably says a lot more about me than it does about the novel. This story’s success depends very much upon the reader’s identification with its cheerfully self-effacing heroine, and I never managed to reach that point, mostly because I kept finding myself in disagreement with Prudence’s viewpoint and methods.
(Of course, disagreeing with Prudence is tantamount to agreeing with the Methodist Ladies’ Aid Society…which in the context of this novel is tantamount to being WRONG.)
Oh, heck. I suppose I’d better ‘fess up. Midway through the novel, Prudence catches the romantic interest of the young professor of entomology from the local college – much to her horror. She is repulsed by his profession generally, and not least when, while out on a walk, he tucks an interesting specimen into his pocket: she spends the rest of the ramble manoeuvring away from her escort and avoiding being touched by him. The reader is clearly supposed to consider Prudence’s reaction a demonstration of her proper femininity, but— Well, here’s the problem: I find insects fascinating – and I would very much enjoy being courted by a “buggy professor” with caterpillars in his pockets. Prudence and I had already had our differences by this point in the novel, and with this episode it became clear that she and I were never really going to see eye to eye.
But my own peculiar prejudices aside— Prudence Of The Parsonage was Ethel Hueston’s first novel, and it does show at various points in the book. Early on in particular, the good-humour of the Starr family is several times illustrated by them collapsing en masse into laughter, or reducing others to a similar state with their sayings and doings, but these scenes feel rather forced. A more serious problem is the presentation of Prudence, which similarly suffers from over-insistence on Hueston’s part. We can well believe that the modest Prudence considers herself the uninteresting and unimportant member of the family; the problem is her tendency to describe herself so to others. What was needed here was a course of show, don’t tell: Prudence’s repeated assertion of her own inferiority begins to feel like an exercise in fishing for compliments.
There is also – at least to me – an uncomfortable narrowness to the religious belief evinced by the various Starrs: they display very little tolerance or understanding towards anyone who does not share their particular view of life, but calmly condemn them as simply wrong. That said, the novel has an encouraging take on religious practice. Despite Mr Starr’s position, we never venture inside his church. Rather, there is an insistence upon the weaving of faith into all aspects of life, and not merely confining it to a few hours on Sunday. Prudence herself is much given to spontaneous prayer, regardless of time and place. Her first visitor from the Ladies’ Aid is taken aback when, dropping in to offer her assistance to the newcomers, she finds Prudence on her knees in the barn – offering fervent thanks for the barn:
“…As they walked slowly toward the house, Mrs Adam looked at this parsonage girl in frank curiosity and some dismay, which she strongly endeavoured to conceal from the bright-eyed Prudence. The Ladies had said it would be so nice to have a grown girl in the parsonage! Prudence was nineteen from all accounts, but she looked like a child and, well, it was not exactly proper for a grown-up to give thanks for a barn, to say the very least! Yet this girl had full charge of four younger children, and was further burdened with the entire care of a minister-father!”
As the Starrs try to find their feet in Mount Mark, the town looks on, sometimes with amusement, often with consternation. Many of the incidents described reflect, I suspect, episodes in Ethel Hueston’s own early life. Prudence Of The Parsonage is heavily autobiographical, drawing on Hueston’s experiences as one of the numerous children of a Methodist minister – although from the novel’s dedication, we gather that there was a devoted mother in charge of the brood. Various passages in the novel have an unmistakeable authenticity. It is impossible, for instance, not to sympathise with Prudence’s rapturous response to the discovery that, for the first time, the Starr family will have both a proper bathroom and electricity:
“…Oh, father, the night after you wrote there was a bathroom, Constance thanked God for it when she said her prayers. And I couldn’t reprove her, for I felt the same way about it myself. It’ll be so splendid to have a whole tub to bathe in!…And electric lights!…I’m sure we’ll all feel much more religious in a parsonage that has a bathroom and electric lights! Oh, father!”
Ethel Hueston’s alter-ego here is Lark, one of the twins, whose imagination leads her sisters into fun and adventure – and occasionally trouble. Lark plans a career as a novelist and is constantly on the look-out for “material”, spinning tales at the drop of a hat and using her story-telling ability to enliven – and sometimes avoid – the housework. Entirely credible is the dark and dangerous secret society, “Skull and Crossbones”, founded by the twins, which carries out its nefarious schemes in the depths of the Starrs’ barn, and to which the youngest child, Connie, is absolutely desperate to gain admission. Who could really blame the society’s ruling members for taking advantage of such an opportunity..?
Also amusingly believable is the sequence of events that brings Prudence to the crisis of her life. Reminded of her early passion for bicycling, Prudence borrows a machine from a neighbour. However, worried that her indulgence might be regarded as too undignified for a daughter of the parsonage, she sneaks out early one morning to have her fun unseen. A long sloping hill tempts her to some freestyle coasting – only for disaster to strike:
“…but as she neared the bottom, a disastrous and totally unexpected thing happened. The placid mule, which had been righteously grazing beside the fence, suddenly stalked into the middle of the road. Prudence screamed, jerked the handle-bar to the right, then to the left, and then, with a sickening thud, she landed head first upon some part of the mule’s anatomy…”
The resulting tangle of girl, bike and mule leaves Prudence stranded, her means of transport badly damaged and her ankle sprained. (The mule is uninjured, I am happy to report.) Unable to help herself, and with her family unaware of her intentions, it is with overwhelming relief that Prudence hears the approach of a stranger, a young man out for an early walk. He first offers to go for help, but the distraught Prudence begs him not to leave her, but to wait with her until some means of transport happens by. He does so, and by the time a local farmer with a cart enters their vicinity, the lives of both young people have changed forever.
But of course, for Prudence it’s not that simple. For almost seven years her every waking thought has been devoted to the care of her father and sisters, and the idea that she might now pursue her own happiness at the expense of theirs is intolerable to her. Determined to keep her pledge to her family, Prudence sends Jerry away, at bitter emotional cost to herself. The struggle with herself has a serious affect upon her health, so that when a subsequent accident leaves her weak, bedridden and feverish, her family begins to fear that she may have sacrificed much more for them than just her happiness…
Prudence Of The Parsonage was a success for Ethel Hueston, and even though I have my issues with the novel, it is not hard to see why. It’s a perfectly sincere work, a deeply heartfelt tribute to Ethel Hueston’s parents and their way of life. The depiction of small-town life with its various pleasures and conflicts, and the attractions of the surrounding countryside, is entirely persuasive. Perhaps more significantly, however, the book was published in 1915, and it captures a world, that of pre-WWI America, that would soon be gone forever. The various naive references to the seemingly remote possibility of war, and the twins’ entirely unrealistic plans for a romantic career as war nurses, have a terrible poignancy about them. It is easy to imagine that, given the events of the following three years, many people found solace in this novel’s view of the world and its overtones of simple and abiding faith.