Helen Leah Reed was, as I found out back then, a rather prolific writer who strangely enough does not have her own entry on wikipedia. "Brenda's Bargain" was originally published in 1903, but of course I got it as a free ebook from the kindle store.
While I quite enjoyed "Miss Theodora" (my first read by this author), more than once I was tempted to stop reading "Brenda's Bargain" and start on something else. The reason was boredom - a lot of the book is taken up by the rather dull and not very life-like description of the various characters and their daily goings-on. But every time I thought "I'll finish this chapter and then put it aside", something came up that managed to hold my interest long enough to keep going.
My mistake - which I realized way too late - with this book was that it is actually the last one of a series of four books, all about Brenda, a girl from a wealthy Boston family. Brenda's adventures span, as far as I can tell, the years from her childhood to the time she gets married (which happens at the end of this story). All throughout the book, events and people are referred to that are impossible for the reader to know without having read the first three books as well. There are other series of books (such as the Agatha Raisin books by M.C. Beaton, some of which I have reviewed on my blog) that manage to be very well readable without necessarily sticking to any particular order, or without knowing each and every previous instalment. Not so with "Brenda's Bargain".
The story starts with Brenda going shopping for a birthday present. She chooses a very fragile glass vase, and when the girl at the shop breaks it and is unconsolable about the little accident, Brenda takes an interest in the 15-year-old orphan and manages to convince her strict aunt to have Maggie attend a special school for girls from disadvantaged families, started by a friend of hers in the mansion she inherited.
The school teaches a dozen or so girls from different countries (Syria, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and some U.S. citizens as well), and a lot of the girls' looks and characters are portrayed in a rather stereotype manner, lacking originality.
The school itself is certainly interesting; in those days (most of the story takes place in 1898) it was not at all common for girls to get a good education, especially not if their families were of working class background. The young ladies who take part in the school work are all friends of the owner; she - as far as I could gather without having read the first three books in the series - was their teacher at some stage, and most of the young women were classmates at Radcliffe college. If it was unusual for girls to get a good education at all, it was even more so for them to go to college. College girls were looked upon as something exotic, not very feminine, bad housekeepers and worse wives. Therefore, the work of the young ladies to keep the school going was certainly courageous and only possible thanks to the wealth of their families in combination with a pioneer spirit.
Wikipedia says about Radcliffe college that it was started in 1879 in order to allow women to receive a college education while it was still impossible for them to go to Harvard. Among the very few snippets of information about the author of "Brenda's Bargain" I found that she herself had been to Radcliffe, which makes me believe that she knew what she was talking about.
You see, this was the sort of thing that kept me reading: the glimpses of what life was like back then, the views people had, how society treated the less fortunate, and so on.
One bit I found particularly interesting: The description of the kitchen at the mansion. It was considered ultra-modern and designed to allow the girls to have cooking lessons which would come in very useful for them later in life, when seeking employment and making their own homes.
The walls, painted a soft yellow, reflected the sunshine, without making a glare. The oiled hardwood floor had its centre covered with a large square of a substance resembling oilcloth, yet softer. A large space around the range was of brick tiles. The iron sink stood on four iron legs with a clear, open space beneath it; there were no wooden closets under it to harbor musty cloths and half-cleaned kettles, and serve as a breeding place for all kinds of microbes. A shelf beside the sink was so sloped that dishes placed there would quickly drain off before drying. The wall above the sink was of blue and white Dutch tiles, and between the sink and the range a zinc-covered table offered a suitable resting-place for hot kettles and pans. Below the clock shelf was another, with a row of books that closer inspection showed to be cook-books. All these details could not, of course, be taken in at once, although the pleasant impression was immediate.
"Plants in the window, and what a curious wire netting!" cried Brenda.The frame for the story line is provided by the school year. The book ends with the school breaking up for summer, and the reader is told of the progress of the girls as well as of the developments in the lives of the young ladies running the school.
"Yes, it is neater than curtains, keeps out flies, and though it is so made that outsiders cannot look into the room it does not obscure the light. The shades at the top can be pulled down when we really need to darken the room."
Nora stood enraptured before the tall dresser with its store of dishes and jelly moulds, then she gazed into the long, light pantry, the shelves of which were laden with materials for cooking in jars and tins and little boxes, all neatly labelled and within easy reach. On the wall were several charts—one showing the different cuts of beef and lamb, another by figures and diagrams giving the different nutritive values of different articles of food.
Brenda, the heroine, is not much in the foreground for a lot of the time; she has a difficult time when it seems like her engagement to a certain Arthur will come to nothing.
Maybe this was one more of the things that had me slightly bored with the book; the chapters never focused on one character for long, so that I found it difficult to get attached to anyone in particular.
Not a total waste of time, but I certainly won't go back to find the other three "Brenda"-books.