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Olive Roscoe or The New Sister: E. Everett-Green, Nelson

The first two chapters of this book left me going ‘Blimey.’ In those chapters, we’ve met the titular heroine in spring, which, yes, is symbolic, as the writer sets out how Olive’s girlhood comes to an end. First, a childhood friend, Rolfe, prompted by being about to leave home, half-proposes to her. Olive has never thought of him in that way, but settles on a promise to think about it and not encourage anyone else.

But that is a mere nothing as Olive finds out that she is not an orphan after all. The aunt who has lovingly brought her up reveals that a family tragedy had led to Olive’s pregnant mother having a breakdown which induced an early labour. When her mother was more like herself, they brought baby Olive to her, but she refused to believe that the little baby, so different from the other babies she’s given birth to was hers. Her own baby had to be dead and it was a trick. Nobody could reason her out of this idée fixe and Olive was eventually brought up by her childless uncle and aunt on the Cornwall-Devon border.

Now at the age of twenty, Olive learns that her birth mother has recently died and her birth father would like to bring her home to the north of England and give her all the privileges of an acknowledged daughter. Oh, and she has eight siblings.

As I said, ‘Blimey!’

Most of the story is about Olive and this newly expanded family, focusing mainly on the siblings nearest in age to her. None of the children are truly distraught by their mother’s death. She kept her distance from them while being very busy doing good works, although she did perhaps spoil Pearl, the daughter who came after Olive. Next in age after Pearl is ‘hoiden’ Madge, aged sixteen, not far off leaving the schoolroom and hating the idea. She particularly feels somewhat relieved that her mother’s repression is lifted.

The most important brother is Basil, just older than Olive, the sibling she most resembles, and an invalid with a life-threatening heart condition since he recklessly sacrificed his strength to rescue buried miners in the local pit - Mr Roscoe, like his father, made his wealth in coal mining. Afraid to excite Basil and lead to another attack, which might be fatal, and almost blaming him for not listening to their father and sparing himself, a distance had grown between the rest of the family and Basil, but Olive, from the outset, leaped over it.

Indeed, Olive’s arrival is shown to be a good thing for the family. Old enough to have a developed character, she has strengths her other sisters lack. Margaret, the eldest, who becomes the mistress of the house, is dull, if good, and bad with people outside the family circle. Petted Pearl likes to be centre of the universe – an universe that contains more and more young men, only Pearl has some rather base ideas about the sort of gentleman she should marry. Meanwhile, can Olive win Madge over to the idea of growing up?

There is some culture class – Olive finds the northern Roscoes more direct than her. The family is wealthy, but ‘in trade’, while she had a southern, vicarage upbringing. Inevitably, Olive tries to help the miners’ daughters, something that Margaret or Pearl never thought of doing – there’s a strain of paternalism here. Although the author claimed to be treating to the issues leading to a strike even-handedly, I didn’t see it. In this book, trade unions are run by agitators who bring out the most bestial aspects in men, while enlightened masters like Mr Roscoe are their betters. (There are shades of ‘North and South’ here, but Everett-Green is no Gaskell).

Olive is set up as a virtuous example of womanhood, thoughtful and tender-hearted, but with a charm that makes her appealing, not irritating. She may admit to having vices, in the serious moments where she talks about her belief in God, but EE-G doesn’t show them. Apart from worry over Basil’s health and Pearl’s flirting, the main shadow in her life is that half-promise given to Rolfe. By the time their paths cross again, she has definitely realised that she doesn’t love him like that. Although he’s two years her senior, she has outgrown him. She’s also met more men, one of whom is Everard Dacre, Basil’s great friend who usefully studied medicine until coming into enough money to live among books. Pearl, of course, underestimates him.

It occurred to me that the names are suggestive – Olive is associated with green (and Basil is also a plant name), while Everard is not too far from Everett.

Sometimes, EE-G misses an opportunity – the youngest children are introduced when all the Roscoes first hear of Olive’s existence, but then are underused. Olive’s aunt-mother figure, whose mothering appears to advantage against Mrs Roscoe’s failings, only turns up again at the end of the book. There’s no mention of correspondence with her, even. The ending is much too neat. It’s a book that paints its heroine as an example to the reader, showing the impact a virtuous woman can have in her family, although in rather extreme circumstances. It’s better than ‘My Cousin from Australia’ by a fair bit.

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