As this now out-of-print novel was lacking a blurb or cover illustration, I was expecting from the title for it to be something about an incorrigible Regency rake, or similar. I was definitely not expecting this to be a story about a family of five home-schooled girls just after World War II.
It opened with an alarmingly chirpy attempt at quirky humour, and for the first few chapters I thought it was going to be simply a warm, fluffy book about an eccentric family. Something didn’t feel quite right, however – something dark lurked beneath the main character, Morgan’s, desperately bright laughter and her excessive affection and protectiveness towards her mother. Throughout the novel Mrs Harvey is treated as being delicate and in need of care – even a minor argument has her in bed for days, and she is completely housebound.
As the novel progresses we see just how insular and shut out of real life the girls are (especially contrasted with their older sister, Pandora, who has married and lives in London), and how much they yearn for even the slightest forbidden social contact with others.
In spite of the deliberately light-hearted tone (or perhaps because of it), I found Guard Your Daughters deeply unsettling. Looking at other reviews out there, it seems that it’s intended as a warm, emotional tale with a certain touching poignancy, but I really am unable to see past the tragedy of an entire family living stunted lives, and the most disturbing part, for me, is that the they seem entirely unaware of it, and perfectly contented. It made me think of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, in which we see the story through the eyes of a young child who has never left the shed in which his mother has been imprisoned for the past few years.
So yes, I found it really quite bizarre and disturbing. It’s either an extremely clever and subtle exploration of mental illness affecting a family, or it’s an incredibly badly judged cosy comedy. I still can’t decide which.
Next up: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole