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Guard Your Daughters

by Diana Tutton

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 'Seated Figure' (1952) by Leslie Cole (1910-76) at the Swindon Art Gallery


WITH A PUBLISHER'S AFTERWORD 
272pp
ISBN 9781910263150

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton is a 1953 novel about a family of five daughters living in the country – or rather four daughters since one has recently escaped by marrying and it is Morgan, Cressida, Teresa and Thisbe who are still at home with their parents. Their mother stops her daughters going to school or making friends. But because she tends to make scenes or retire to bed, her family do all they can to avoid defying or upsetting her; yet they do so in a continually light-hearted, cheerful fashion. 

Thus on one level this is a ‘fun’ book in the Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day/Miss Buncle’s Book vein i.e. a light novel which makes no pretence to be anything other than an easy read. But entwined within the lightweight, sometimes hilarious, descriptions of the sisters’ everyday life is an exploration of the source and the cause of insanity: only gradually is it revealed that the girls’ mother is far more than merely neurotic. And in this respect the book is more like PB No. 59, There Were No Windows than anything else. 

Diana Tutton wrote three novels and in each of them she took a story with a dark undertone and wrote in a style that is more usual in the frothiest of social comedy. Mamma (1955) is about a middle-aged widow who is in love with her daughter’s husband, and The Young Ones (1959) is about incest: a young couple fall in love, discover they are in fact brother and sister, but marry nevertheless. Guard Your Daughters (Diana Tutton’s first published novel, although it was written after Mamma) is about a family keeping up a brave front of being bohemian and fun. The novel’s sophistication lies in the reader not knowing whether to read it as lightweight domestic fiction or something much more upsetting and peculiar. 

We know from the first sentence, as we do in Earth and High Heaven, PB No. 122, what the ending will be: ‘I’m very fond of my new friends, but do get angry when they tell me how dull my life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, I suppose, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn’t suffer from is boredom.’ The tone of voice is light and ‘girlish’. But this  is a book about family secrets. Most frequently compared with I Capture the Castle, another important inspiration was surely the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Jane Eyre

Guard Your Daughters, as well, is about motherhood: was Mrs Harvey a ‘good enough’ mother (whom her daughters love very much) or a controlling, destructive one? (Diana Tutton wrote a sequel in the late 1950s which, alas, was never published. It was called Unguarded Moments and its setting is London seven years after Mrs Harvey had a total breakdown and all the girls moved out: to freedom and their own lives. Morgan has married and had two children. In this novel, too, there is a dark side: one of her children disappears and is not found for a heart- stopping few hours.) 

Because there are such sharply contrasting readings of Guard Your Daughters, we decided not to commission a Preface but instead we have created a Publisher’s Afterword which is a ‘collage’ of various points of view, the positive response intertwined with the negative. On the flap the original publisher said: ‘Seldom has a first novel come our way which has given us such pleasure to read or such confidence to publish.’ Their enthusiasm helped ensure that Guard Your Daughters was a bestseller when first published, and as a Book of the Month Choice it sold 200,000 copies. John Betjeman in the Daily Telegraph called it ‘a really talented first novel, a thoroughly “nice” book full of likeable characters. The excellence of this story lies in the depth behind the flashing surface.’ And the Spectator wrote that ‘the whole thing is so true, so lively, so full of charm, that there is nothing left  to say but thank you.’ A few years ago the book was very popular with the blogging community. Stuck in a Book wrote: ‘What a heavenly book! What a glorious find! This is a novel which glories in its own delightful eccentricity – but not without serious undertones. The main wonder of the novel is the family, and Morgan’s voice. I have no idea how Diana Tutton has created such a loveable character. Guard Your Daughters is so funny, so lively and delightful. It’s a warm blanket of a novel, but never cloying or sentimental.’ 

Endpapers taken from a 1953 printed cotton by Susie Cooper for Cavendish Textiles.

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Categories: Childhood    Country Life    Family    Humour    Mothers    Social Comedy    Young Love    Teenagers (books for)   
 

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