Books Magazine

Cynthia’s Way by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1901)

By Erica

Review by Jane V:

Cynthia, a rich, independent English society girl (albeit without surviving family) goes to Germany as a governess ‘for an adventure’.

Cynthia lives with a family run by a homely aunt of the four orphaned, unruly children and tactfully brings discipline and education to the family.  The children’s guardian Adrian (their half brother) returns from South Africa to manage his estate to which the family moves from town. The guardian falls in love with Cynthia who is at pains to hide from him her real status as an heiress. Cynthia diplomatically averts family upset when she intercepts the elder daughter who is intent on eloping with a tutor engaged to teach the boys and temporarily takes the rap for the affair thus placing her blossoming romance with the guardian at risk.  However all is well in the end; Cynthia marries her German, the elder girl marries the steady man her brother wishes her to marry and the children are all happy that Cynthia becomes part of the family.

This is a very pleasant domestic romance which contains enough action and threat of disaster to hold the reader’s attention.  The characters are well drawn even if the German personae are somewhat stereotypical.  Frau Klopps, the children’s aunt who runs the household is presented as the typical German ‘hausfrau’ who believes that a woman’s duty is to maintain a good table and a tidy linen cupboard.  Cynthia, being from the English upper class, has no idea at first how to run a household but shows willing to learn.  She is an engaging character because she is feisty, independent and really a proto-feminist and therefore a good contrast to Frau Klopps.

The life of the household is portrayed in lively conversations and vivid observations.  The two boys (aged perhaps 10 and 12) seem to spend most of their time playing war-like games and being unmanageable.  There is an element in the book which hints at an innocuous rivalry between Germany and Britain but of course the book was written before relations between the two countries were destroyed by two world wars.  At the time the book was written many English people admired Germany and German culture so the German born author is able to have fun with the comparisons and contrasts between the two nations and their national characteristics.  There are frequent quotations from German writers (in German without translation) so one assumes that the author expected a knowledge of the language in her readers.

It is chiefly this point which means the novel perhaps has to be read today with a degree of suspension of historical knowledge.  Otherwise it would be all too easy for the present day reader to see ironies in the story.  The novel is set after the Boer War and before the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand so today’s reader has to prevent herself from colouring the story with late 20th century knowledge of history and wondering what would have happened to Cynthia and Adrian after 1914.

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