This 1942 novel was a Florence King recommendation, and she has yet to let me down. The Valley of Decision, the story of a Pittsburgh steel mill-owning family from the 1870s to the 1940s, is an epic, sweeping saga - a bestseller in its day, filmed in 1945.
The book opens on the day the well-to-do Clarissa Scott employs Irish teenager Mary Rafferty as a maid. Mary lives to see Clarissa’s great-great-grandchildren, and over the intervening years it is Mary who, elevated to housekeeper/companion, becomes the family’s rock, settling disputes, keeping up traditions, providing nurture and support. Despite her long-term romance with Paul, the son and heir, this is less a Cinderella fantasy than a novel about the importance of duty and sacrifice – not a very popular concept today. (The irresponsible 1920s, the period with which the book is least in sympathy, are covered in a token chapter). Mary’s service at home is paralleled by the military service of the men in the book and by the mill’s contribution to various war efforts. Some of the book’s patriotism appears simplistic (I couldn’t agree, for example, with the idea that all wars are part of the same war – wars are fought for different reasons in different circumstances) and one of Paul and Mary’s conversations struck a note somewhere between jingoism and mawkishness:
“You see?” Paul said. He put his hand on her shoulder and his blue eyes stared deep into hers. “Anybody else might think me a sentimental fool, ” he said softly. “But you know me. You really know me. I tell you,” he said, “any time this country gets in a scrap, it’s my scrap and this mill’s scrap. Highspeed saws and fancy springs are all right in their place – but this mill makes death for anyone that bothers the U.S.A.”
“Oh, Paul. I-I love to hear you talk that way.” Her eyes were wet and shining.
But the final section, which shifts the focus to journalist Claire’s experiences in 1930s central Europe, contains a powerful anti-isolationist argument in the form of a graphic account of the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia which followed the Munich Agreement.
Even without two world wars, the book would be meaty: there are elopements, liaisons, feuds, betrayals, nervous breakdowns, strikes and boardroom battles galore. While there’s plenty about the history of Pittsburgh and of the steel industry, the story ranges much further afield. Clarissa’s daughter Constance lives in great luxury in Europe, bankrolled (it’s implied but never stated) by the Prince of Wales, and the descriptions of her lifestyle almost drip off the page:
Constance, in a black velvet dinner gown and great pearls, sat at the head of the table critically attentive and judicious as perfect soles followed perfect turtle soup, a garnished filet of buttery red beef followed the soles, artichokes from the South of France followed that, a huge pâté en croute appeared with the salad, and a frozen bombe masked in golden spun sugar brought – Mary hoped – the formidable meal to a close. But no, there was the savoury to cope with, peppery devilled mushrooms on thrones of toast. There was sherry with the soup, Meursault with the fish, Richebourg with the beef, and Mary actually shuddered when Constance, helping herself to the sweet, said, “Champagne, Radford. The Cordon Rouge.”
This is a long, ambitious work. Like the 1947 film The Courtneys of Curzon Street (which may have been inspired by this), it is set against the background of enormous social and technological change and offers the opportunity to reinterpret the Victorian past in the light of Freudian analysis. The Valley of Decision has the faults of its genre. It sags somewhat in the middle, some plot twists appear contrived and melodramatic, and more than once moments of crisis are skipped over in favour of the everyday. But Marcia Davenport has enough talent to make the everyday fascinating, to evoke a vanished world and, most of the time, to keep the pages turning very fast indeed.