After yesterday’s debacle of a book, I decided to treat myself to a known favourite by an author who has managed to include a plot in his job description. His? Well, yes. Valerie Baxter is actually Laurence Meynell. Clearly Bodley Head felt it would be inappropriate to have a male writer of their career novels for girls – although he did write under his own name for Chatto & Windus. Kay Whalley, who, as Kay Clifford, wrote Career Novels for Girls, commented on another post that Hester: Ship’s Officer feels like bits of two books mashed together. And she might have a point as there’s a good bit of story before Hester realises what it is she’d like to do.
Like me, Hester’s first voyage was made when she was very young. In 1938, at the age of two, she and her parents set sail for Australia where her engineer father is to supervise work on a dam. As war intervenes, he is transferred to more pressing duties and the family settles in to life in Sydney where they remain for ten years. I would make the journey the other way, from Melbourne back to Edinburgh, just less than thirty years later. I was even younger than Hester, being yet unborn!
It is Hester’s return voyage to Britain in 1948 that makes the impression on her. Back in Blighty she is sent to boarding school where she excels at tennis and swimming and generally enjoys life. Having no idea what she wants to do with her life when she leaves school, she accepts her father’s suggestion that she goes to a commercial college for six months. Unenthusiastically, she agrees and does well. On the strength of this she gets a job as secretary to Julian Manners, the owner of The Wine House. (Somehow it is also relevant that his father is ‘Sir Wraybury Manners, the big surgeon’…)
Hester enjoys her somewhat unconventional secretarial position but she’s always beset by a nagging desire for more freedom. In the end, though, Hester feels forced to leave the Wine House by the behaviour of another of Julian’s employees, a widow with designs on the boss. With no good reason she is jealous of Hester and the two cannot work together. So Hester goes and, after a few months, gains a typing post at the offices of the M&E Steamship Navigation Company. She’s put on the sea-going list and settles down to wait until a post at sea becomes available.
We meet Hester’s flatmates: the steady Zoe and the racy and flamboyant Pat. Then there’s Hester’s new friend, Felicity, at M&E and her parents in the background. So Valerie Baxter gives us a proper setting and a bit of a storyline along with career advice. Pat is particularly unexpected in a book for teenage girls published in 1957. We see what we think is the last of her having an affair with a married film director. Her other flatmate follows a more accepted line and gets married the day before Hester finally makes it to sea.
She is given a job in the Deputy Purser’s Office on board the Mendip and will sail the round trip to Australia, leaving Tilbury in early September. It is pointed out forcibly to the reader that Hester is a stenographer and not an assistant purser. Women cannot aspire to such dizzy heights. But she is classed as an officer. And so, almost two thirds of the way through the book, Hester finally becomes a ship’s officer. If I thought I could, like Hester, have a single outside cabin, I’d definitely be looking for a job on board a ship. That I wouldn’t have such a thing is what puts me off.
Hester quickly adapts to life at sea and gets on well with her fellow workers. She falls into the rhythm of life on board ship easily and can imagine no place she’d rather be. ‘Hester tried to imagine what she would do with the first leave that she had to spend in England and found…that the whole fabric and framework of her shore life now seemed so remote and unreal that she could scarcely work up any enthusiasm on the subject’. That’s exactly how I feel on board a ship, which is why this is one of my favourite books.
“The more the ship rolled the better she liked it; and the harder it blew the more exhilarating she found it.”
We hear about Hester’s routine, the funny ways of passengers and the ports of call, not that she sees any of them on the outward voyage. And then the ship arrives in Freemantle (yes, with a double e) and life once more becomes hectic. Few of the passengers disembark there but Hester has time for a quick sightseeing tour of Perth before heading on to Melbourne and finally Sydney. There she visits her old school and is promptly press-ganged by the headmistress into talking to the sixth form about her job.
The return leg of the journey proceeds much as expected and Hester begins to feel that she can take anything in her stride. However, she is stunned when the female part of the luxury suite, a self-obsessed, unreasonably demanding diva, turns out to be her former flatmate, Pat. A more pleasant diversion comes at Gibraltar with the embarkation of Julian Manners. Hester realises how pleased she is to see him and by the end of the voyage has agreed to marry him three years hence. In the meantime, however, she is immediately to take the place of a sick colleague on a Scandinavian cruise. Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Copenhagen and so on…
I didn’t mean to but I’ve reread the book as I wrote this and I’ve remembered all over again how much I enjoy it and how much I envy Hester her life at sea. There’s a lot of useful information crammed in but there’s a story and proper characters as well as a believable setting. I commend it to you!