A Waltz at Midnight – Crista McHugh

Received from Netgalley for review, thank you. This was actually a short story or novella (I find it hard to tell on the Kindle), taking place very soon after the end of the Civil War. It centers on Susanna, who has seen her life turned upside-down: their father was killed in the war, their house and land destroyed in Sherman’s March, their mother died soon after, and Susanna’s brother was sent home from battle with a leg less than before. The two of them have come north to the only refuge available to them, to act as servants at an aunt’s boarding house, where the boarders are young ladies attending Vassar. Mostly horrid snobs, these.

One boarder who is neither horrid nor a snob, Charlotte, is a wealthy bluestocking, not the prettiest of creatures, who is secretly in love with a local doctor. He loves her as well, but their marriage appears impossible: she is being herded into an unwanted but financially beneficial courtship by her father and the young man’s. The two have never met, but the gentleman, Theodore (Ted) is coerced into writing her a letter to open negotiations.

I find I don’t know a huge amount about etiquette in the US in this period – but from what I understand this would be unheard of in England in 1886. Maybe things were different here …

The letter, as reluctantly sent as it is received, is not … congenial, shall we say. Charlotte – not the sharpest of knives in the drawer – flutters off for help to Susanna, whom she knows to be far cleverer. Susanna, outraged and with Charlotte’s full cooperation, dashes off a sharp response, signs it as Lottie, and sends it off. Far from putting our Teddie off, it intrigues him, and so begins a correspondence which explores both their feelings about the war, and travel, and life in general, and, of course, the two fall in love. This is fine with Teddie, as his father has made it clear that it is his duty to marry the girl; for the girl, who is not actually the girl, it’s a bit awkward.

It was a sweet little story. It was wise to keep it at this length; anything longer would have gotten monotonous and even more improbable than the story already was. The writing was not terrible: though it waxed purple, that was, somewhat, in keeping with the time – there has never been a more purple-prose period than the 1800’s. Still, there are a few rough patches.

Though the primary influence for the story has to have been Cyrano, there are references throughout to Cinderella, right down to Susanna, constantly cleaning fireplaces in the boarding house, seeing herself as being covered with soot and ashes, and a comment from Lottie about how pretty she is when she’s not covered in ashes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Teddie is a Prince Charming, but he’s a bit of all right, and all in all this is an appealing, agreeable little story.

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