The Shining Years (1972) was written twenty years after Emilie Loring’s death, but it is vintage Emilie Loring. It has everything–an old and stately home, a noble leading man, a spirited young woman, a worthy competitor for her affections, a wise older woman, villains, ideals, personal conflicts, and a love story.
Stanley Holbrook’s life is neatly organized around his job as an assistant publishing editor. A chance photograph of his family’s home, an actual castle in Connecticut, sends an unlikely cast of characters to disturb his well-ordered life.
Aunt Winifred Holbrook, a worrywart and hypochondriac from San Francisco, and Eve Holbrook, the widow of Stanley’s brother, Bill, each write that they are coming to visit. By a stroke of luck, Ellen Davis, a woman in her sixties, sees the photograph of Stanley’s huge home and writes:
“I am not young; I suppose I could be called a rebellious old woman, but I want to do something meaningful. I find it unbearable to be put on a shelf while I am still active. There is one thing I can do well; I am a homemaker.”
Stanley engages her to manage his household of servants and guests, unaware that he has just hired the hero of this story. He also quits his job at the publishing company in a dispute about the kinds of books they should accept.
“Historical novels! Who reads historical novels today?” … “I want you to run along and read these two manuscripts. They’re hot stuff and that’s what people want.”
… Stanley fought down an almost over-powering temptation to knock the smug Fisk off his chair.
Sherry Winthrop, age twenty, is an aspiring author with a sunny, confident personality and an occasional spark of temper. She receives a kind but condescending rejection letter from Stanley Holbrook for her first novel, The Shining Years:
“There is an engaging quality of youth in your writing but you would, perhaps, be well advised to live a few more of those shining years before you attempt to write of them.”
Insulted, she determines to make him take her seriously as a writer and ends up not only a guest in his home but also a writer for the village newspaper, which he has just purchased.
Many twists and turns ensue, prompted by the return of Major Doug Carlton, Sherry’s absent fiancé, and a political scheme to undermine the newspaper’s credibility.
Emilie Loring signaled her books’ themes with their titles, but Robert Loring did not. For it was Robert who wrote this book. His brother, Selden, had died two years earlier, and Miss Denniston was not engaged for this, the last Emilie Loring book. This was significant for several reasons, not the least of which was that the brothers had quarreled about whether to continue the books or not, and Robert argued that they should stop. You’ll hear more about this in Happy Landings.
For now, notice that he wrote Aunt Ellen (Emilie?) as the hero, a combination of grace and wisdom who sees the tangle the young people get themselves into and sets things aright with diplomacy, a touch of humor, and an occasional nudge in a new direction.
He found himself wishing he could have known her when she was a girl.
Each character has a pressing need that boils down to having a purpose and finding the right companion.
“The choice of a lifework is as important as the choice of a life partner. It influences all your future comfort.”
Aunt Winifred frets about imaginary health problems, because she doesn’t have interests outside herself. Without her husband’s infectious energy, Eve Holbrook has become passive and needs the jump-start of new interests and vitality.
Aunt Ellen has plenty of drive; she just needs an opportunity to use it. That’s true for Sherry, too, whom we can imagine being very much like Aunt Ellen when she is older. Both need to do something–something worthwhile–to be happy.
Stanley has drive and purpose in his work. What he lacks is a personal life, a spark of connection to bring him alive. In fact, the words “spark” and “sparkling” appear as often as “shining.” The book could as easily have been titled, The Sparkling Years.
Which brings us to the couples… Doug and Sherry are engaged, but they don’t belong together.
In the whirlwind courtship he had not noticed that, for all her gaiety, Sherry was essentially a serious person. She had plunged into all the entertainment he offered as wholeheartedly as she did everything because she wanted to share his interests… The trouble was, Doug admitted, that such a life of effort did not appeal to him. He wanted a pleasant and easygoing life.
Of course, right in plain sight are the people they match better. It was easier for Doug with Eve, “who demanded nothing and whose soft laugh accompanied even his feeblest sallies.” And Stanley and Sherry are nearer equals, with sparks flying between them at first:
Sherry smiled sympathetically. “I don’t blame you for hesitating, Mr. Holbrook. Men are so much more conventional and less adventurous than women and they are afraid–that is, they hate to make changes…”
Stanley was annoyed. He wasn’t so cut and dried that he could not make changes, and he did not care for girls who stated their opinions so bluntly. She spoke as though she represented the spirit of youth and he was an old fogy, set in his ways…
Ellen’s lips twitched.
It’s not as easy as that, though, and it will take some doing before everyone gets to the person who is right for them.
“What are you going to do, Sherry? I didn’t intend to say anything after your Major came home but we’ve got to have it out, plain and clear, between us I love you and you know it. There was one wonderful moment when I thought you loved me. If you are still in love with Carleton, you won’t hear another word from me, but if you aren’t–and you don’t act happy–then break this thing off now. It will be kinder for all of us.”
“I couldn’t do that, Stanley.” Sherry looked down at the hands clasped tightly on her lap.
Alongside the love stories is a dangerous side plot in which a ruthless politician goes to great lengths–even sets a bomb in the newspaper building–to silence Stanley’s paper. This part gets a little long, but with spring taking its sweet time this year, I didn’t mind.
The Shining Years goes to bat, big time, for both books and newspapers. The Baker family (Emilie Baker Loring) had a long history in both, and their values found clear expression. (Remember that this was 1972, when the environmental movement first really took off.)
Books are the last completely free medium for the exchange of ideas, their contents controlled not by the pressures of advertisers or special interests but only by the canons of need or good taste. Everyone seemed to be worrying about pollution of one sort and another, but, he argued, the quality of what people put in their minds was even more important than that of the air they breathed or the food they ate. It conditioned not only their thoughts but their actions; it molded their sense of values.
It was also the time of Watergate and watershed fact-finding by the Washington Post:
“But Stanley,” Ellen pointed out in her quiet voice, “news is the most–the most human thing there is, reflecting the changing picture of our daily lives and the world around us. Fleeting, of course, but essential. A free press is the most vital and important element in a democracy. Why, you can always tell when democracy is threatened because attempts are made to stifle free expression and keep people from knowing what is going on and forming their own judgments.” She added thoughtfully, “It is terrible to see news distorted and falsified for private ends or personal gain or to engender hatred or serve totalitarian purposes as has happened abroad and is happening here every day.”
I identified with Sherry’s reflection about her move from the midwest to New England. This is how I have felt about both Boston and Blue Hill!
It had never occurred to her that she could love a little New England village, but she had a curious sense of belonging.
I like this story. I like it a lot. I like the people, the love story, and the ideals they fight for. There’s wisdom, humor, and romance — just right for the last of the Emilie Loring books. Good job, Robert Loring!
The Shining Years
To Love and to Honor
A Key to Many Doors