Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed, written in 1902, opens with 34-year-old Ruth Thorne coming to occupy her aunt’s cottage while her aunt is away. She’s never met her aunt, Miss Jane Hathaway. Miss Jane has never forgiven her sister for running away to elope, but for whatever reason, she decides to establish relationships with her niece. However, she ends up having to leave before her niece arrives, so Ruth finds only Hepsey, the farm-girl working as the maid, at the house. Her aunt left a letter with various instructions, the most mysterious and inexplicable of which was to leave a light burning in the attic window every night.
Ruth worked for a newspaper in the city, but has six months off to house-sit for her aunt. Bored and restless, she explores her aunt’s attic, the first “real attic” she’s ever been in, until she comes across her aunt’s unused wedding dress and some newspaper clippings about a couple’s wedding and the wife’s death. At first Ruth thinks the couple had been friends of her aunt’s, but then surmises that the man was Aunt Jane’s lost love who married someone else. Feeling she’s intruding into her aunt’s privacy, she leaves the attic and vows to stifle her growing curiosity.
She visits her aunt’s best friend and neighbor, Mary Ainslie, who is thought a little odd by the community because she never leaves her home. But Miss Ainslie has a reputation for being kind and sending things to people who need help. Ruth finds her gracious and beautiful, and they soon become friends. Miss Ainslie also leaves a lamp burning in her window at night for unknown reasons.
Soon Ruth has unexpected company: a young man named Carl Winfield looks her up at the recommendation of his editor. Carl works for the same newspaper as Ruth but has developed a problem with his eyes and is ordered not to read or write for several months. He’s staying in town, and their excursions eventually blossom into romance.
In fact, there’s a lot of romance happening in the book:
- Ruth and Carl
- Hepsey and a young man, Joe
- a long lost love recovered
- a long lost love forever gone
Ruth comes across as somewhat prickly at first, easily offended and angered. Carl is laid-back and merry-hearted, and once they got to the point where they expressed their feelings for each other, I enjoyed their banter and their relationship.
There is a bit of a mystery with one of the characters having an unknown connection with another that, to me, was pretty easy to put together, but no one in the book did until they came across evidence of it. The one person who did know of it, for some reason, never tells anyone else. There’s also the mystery of the lights in the windows and why Miss Ainslie never leaves her home. There’s one odd section where two people have the same dream of an old man saying the same thing to them.
The title comes from Miss Ainslie, who has dark violet eyes, always wears some shade of purple or lavender, and scents all her things with lavender. She often, if not always, wears lace as well. Various types of lace are mentioned often in the book: “Ruth was gathering up great quantities of lace—Brussels, Point d’Alencon, Cluny, Mechlin, Valenciennes, Duchesse and Venetian point.” I think in those days it was a precious commodity, possibly made by hand.
The emotions in the book seem a bit overwrought sometimes:
Ruth was cold from head to foot, and her senses reeled. Every word that Winfield had said in the morning sounded again in her ears. What was it that went on around her, of which she had no ken? It seemed as though she stood absolutely alone, in endless space, while planets swept past, out of their orbits, with all the laws of force set suddenly aside.
The earth trembled beneath Ruth’s feet for a moment, then, all at once, she understood.
That may be due to the author’s being twenty when she wrote the book, or it may be due to the times.
But quite a lot of the writing reminded me of Lucy Maud Montgomery, though her first book, Anne of Green Gables, was published six years after this book. The relationships and romances and quarrels are similar to hers, as are some of the descriptive passages:
Have not our houses, mute as they are, their own way of conveying an impression? One may go into a house which has been empty for a long time, and yet feel, instinctively, what sort of people were last sheltered there. The silent walls breathe a message to each visitor, and as the footfalls echo in the bare cheerless rooms, one discovers where Sorrow and Trouble had their abode, and where the light, careless laughter of gay Bohemia lingered until dawn. At night, who has not heard ghostly steps upon the stairs, the soft closing of unseen doors, the tapping on a window, and, perchance, a sigh or the sound of tears? Timid souls may shudder and be afraid, but wiser folk smile, with reminiscent tenderness, when the old house dreams.
The rain had ceased, and two or three stars, like timid children, were peeping at the world from behind the threatening cloud. It was that mystical moment which no one may place—the turning of night to day. Far down the hill, ghostly, but not forbidding, was Miss Ainslie’s house, the garden around it lying whitely beneath the dews of dawn, and up in the attic window the light still shone, like unfounded hope in a woman’s soul, harking across distant seas of misunderstanding and gloom, with its pitiful “All Hail!”
That night, the gates of Youth turned on their silent hinges for Miss Ainslie. Forgetting the hoary frost that the years had laid upon her hair, she walked, hand in hand with them, through the clover fields which lay fair before them and by the silvered reaches of the River of Dreams. Into their love came something sweet that they had not found before—the absolute need of sharing life together, whether it should be joy or pain. Unknowingly, they rose to that height which makes sacrifice the soul’s dearest offering, as the chrysalis, brown and unbeautiful, gives the radiant creature within to the light and freedom of day.
One of my favorite lines occurred after Ruth and Carl profess their love, but he has to return to the city for a doctor’s visit: “She had little time to miss him, however, for, at the end of the week, and in accordance with immemorial custom, the Unexpected happened.”
The ending was bittersweet – in fact, one character’s whole story was mostly shaded that way – but overall the book was a sweet, clean read.
I listened to the free audiobook at Librivox, which was, unfortunately, read with almost no expression. I enjoyed going over some passages at Project Gutenberg, where one can read the whole book online. I had thought that a movie was made of this in the 40s, but the only movie of it I found mention of was made in the 20s. I may have been confusing it with Arsenic and Old Lace, another classic film and book I’ve not yet read or seen.