Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Shopping Gone Wrong: A Prologue to Love - Taylor Caldwell (1961)

I had to wheedle and beg a United States member of Bookcrossing to send me her copy of A Prologue to Love a few years ago.  She didn't want to ship it overseas; I had to sweeten the deal by swapping a couple of fairly new books with her, the titles of which I've long forgotten.

So glad I did.  Whenever I'm in the mood for some comfort reading, A Prologue to Love satisfies like no other novel.  I've got it out again and am reading it.  Knowing the book so well, I can just dip in anywhere, and since it's nearly Christmas, I thought I'd  go to the scene that turns the main character into a miser and recluse for good.  She was already on the road, but the results of her unfortunate Christmas shopping trip gave it the final twist.

For those unfamiliar with this novel, A Prologue to Love (1961) is the story of Caroline Ames, the world's richest woman.  I believe this fictional character is loosely based on Hetty Green, a wealthy miser known as "The Witch of Wall Street.".

Caroline's beginnings are like something out of Dickens or Bronte.  Born sometime around 1860, she's growing up in extreme poverty in a town outside of Boston.  She's motherless because her mother got sick and her father was too cheap to call a doctor in time.  Caroline's father, a millionaire,  is always away traveling and he is revolted by her because she resembles his father, an artist who found fame only posthumously after keeping his own family penniless for years.  Caroline can't see that her father despises her.  She worships him.

Even though her father doesn't like her looks, he recognizes that she is intelligent, and begins a systematic training to make her a miser like himself.  He starts with fear, telling her that people with no money are no better than stray dogs and deserve, like the dogs, to be laughed at and kicked away.  He tells her that she must not spend any money.  She must save it against that eventuality.  John Ames doesn't let her in on the fact that he's one of the richest men in the world.  Naturally good and noble, Caroline begins to grow sullen towards her other relatives and her friends, who are alarmed at what her father is doing to her.

Now living in Boston with her father and her aunt, Caroline realizes that for the first time, it's permissible to exchange Christmas presents.  Her father frowned on it all her life.  Caroline makes a plan to go Christmas shopping.  Mindful about getting the most for her money, she makes a plan to take the horse-drawn streetcar to the low-rent side of Boston and shop for gifts at a store there that she frequented with her beloved nurse and housekeeper when she was a child.

While Caroline is in the store, engrossed in picking out items from the rather shoddy stock, her purse strap is deftly cut from her arm by a thief.  Noticing that it's gone, she believes that she left it on the streetcar and starts to run out the door with the would-be purchases still in her hand.  The store cop thinks she is one of many shoplifters that he sees on a daily basis, and pulls her back in the store.  When she struggles, he slaps her.  Then the cop notices that there's something different about her, even though she's dressed in ill-fitting and shabby clothing like most of the other customers.  He drags her back to the owners' office, and they interrogate and abuse her, saying that she's probably a whore because her hands aren't rough from menial labor.

Caroline tells her story about losing her purse and they laugh at her.  She's too rattled to ask for a messenger to be sent to her aunt's home on Beacon Street, but the store cop grows more uneasy because he's noticed that even though she's scared, she's sporting an upper-class accent.  She looks well-fed, her hands are smooth and her hair is clean and fixed neatly.

Finally, Caroline convinces them that she's telling the truth and the men all have an "oh shit" moment.  Since she's young (about seventeen), they cajole her into believing that it was all a misunderstanding and no hard feelings.  They give her the cheap crap for free and have her sign a paper (which she doesn't read because she's too upset) promising not to hold them liable for anything.  They send her home in a hired hack, and the driver pulls up to the servants' entrance.  Too intimidated, she waits till he drives off then creeps around to the front door.

Her aunt finds Caroline in her bedroom, still in her hat and coat, shaking.  She figures Caroline got a chill, then when she finds out that Caroline lost her purse, she shrugs off the lost seventy-five dollars.  The girl won't confide in her -- or anyone, till much later in the novel -- but the shrewd and observant aunt notices after that day, Caroline begins dressing a a little bit better and carries a purse with a stout strap in a stranglehold grip all the time.   More than her father's corrupt teachings, this Christmas incident will inform the rest of her life.

I absolutely love this book.   It should be made into a movie, or even better, a miniseries.


Valerie Hamer said...

I totally love this post and agree the book would make a good TV show of some kind. Thanks for serving up a nice helping of Bybee charm and wit.

prairie said...

I haven't read this book but love Taylor Caldwell. I will have to look for this.

Care said...

Oh, this looks really good. and sad! goodness. Your review is lovely.

Susan said...

Wow. I could feel my flesh creeping in horror at what Caroline's father did to her - with a tiny smidgeon of sympathy because he came from such poverty. It's funny what money does to people; do you think that's what Taylor Caldwell was really commenting on? I'm not sure I could read this story - I have enough hang-ups about money that I could keep the psychologists rich off of me! I'd have driven her father completely mental with my need to buy books.