Book Review: T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett (henceforth FHB) is well known as the author of The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, which are books I vaguely remember as classics from my childhood though I cannot swear to having actually read them. It turns out she was a bestselling author in her day, and wrote at least twenty other books, including the interestingly titled T. Tembarom,  published in 1910.

I decided to read it solely because of the description in AJ Hall’s review.

The book starts with a philosophical argument that our sources of information about the world are skewed away from learning about most people, who are fairly nice and good, as is the nature of human beings, if there isn’t something aberrant about them.

No one has ever made a collection of statistics regarding the enormous number of perfectly sane, kind, friendly, decent creatures who form a large proportion of any mass of human beings anywhere and everywhere—people who are not vicious or cruel or depraved, not as a result of continual self-control, but simply because they do not want to be, because it is more natural and agreeable to be exactly the opposite things; […]  When one reads a daily newspaper filled with dramatic elaborations of crimes and unpleasantness, one sometimes wishes attention might be called to them—to their numbers, to their decencies, to their normal lack of any desire to do violence and their equally normal disposition to lend a hand. […] They really form the majority; if they did not, the people of the earth would have eaten one another alive centuries ago. But though this is surely true, a happy cynicism totally disbelieves in their existence. When a combination of circumstances sufficiently dramatic brings one of them into prominence, he is either called an angel or a fool. He is neither. He is only a human creature who is normal. After this manner Tembarom was wholly normal.

FHB seems to imply that most people are like T. Tembarom, but if there is one thing that the story makes clear, it is that T. Tembarom is most certainly not normal.

T. T. (as his friends call him) is blessed with almost superhuman good cheer, bounding energy, and a near complete inability to feel sorry for himself. Scarcely less unusual is the story’s other protagonist, Little Ann Hutchinson. They are both without flaw and never put a foot wrong throughout the book. If this was a modern novel, would I have thrown the book against the wall for their sheer Mary Sue-ness?

To illustrate, I can’t do better than quote A J Hall’s description of how the book starts (from the review I mentioned) :

T.Tembarom is the preferred name of the hero, whom we first meet at the age of ten, when, his mother having just died in a New York tenement, he spends his last cents, and twenty more cents he borrows from a neighbour on buying some newspapers to sell. After this, by dint of hard work, undaunted good humour, nightschool shorthand, apparent imperviousness to hypothermia and general applied niceness he works his way up to his a lucky break, namely the opportunity write a Society column on a Sunday paper, whose circulation appears to be predominantly in the Bronx, at the princely sum of 25 per week.</span><span style="color:#3e3e3e;">The only problem is that he doesn't have a clue (a) how to gather material for the column; and (b) how to write it up once he's got it.</span><span style="color:#3e3e3e;">In this dilemma he turns to "Little Ann" Hutchinson, who is living in the same boarding house as him, along with her father, who is a disillusioned inventor from Lancashire. </span>[...]<span style="color:#3e3e3e;">Every young man in the boarding house is in love with Little Ann, who darns everyone's socks, mainly I think to give her hands something to do while her formidable intellect and talent for headology is clicking into gear. </span><span style="color:#3e3e3e;">Little Ann's sensible suggestion is to start gathering material for Society weddings with the wedding caterers. T.Tembaron runs with this suggestion, even though there's a blizzard going. Little Ann does not say, "Do not go out into the blizzard scraping acquaintances with wedding caterers." Little Ann lends him her father's muffler and tells him to make sure he gets the names of the dress fabrics right. T.Tembaron, having made a huge hit with the caterers, befriends a dressmaker and gets samples so he can learn them by heart and spot them at sight. And when his first attempt at the column is rejected by his editor on the basis that it's full of purple prose Tembarom has plagiarised out of other newspaper columns and his25 per hangs by a thread, she ruthlessly sub-edits him, too.

The course of true love running moderately well, and T.Tembaron starting to look hopefully at advertisements for small flats in high rise buildings in the newly built upper 140s and lower 150s, he is devastated by twin blows: first, Mr Hutchinson’s pitch of disillusionment has now become so elevated that only a return to Lancashire will assuage it, and Little Ann will, of course, dutifully accompany him, and, secondly, at the ‘oyster stew’ thrown by way of farewell party to them at the boarding house, a very stuffy London lawyer shows up and reveals T.Tembarom’s real name (and since it’s Temple Temple Barholm, you can see why he’s concealed it for the last quarter of the book) and announces that he’s — ta da! — the missing heir to the village and estates of Temple Barholm, in Lancashire. At which point Mr Hutchinson is struck all of a massive heap and confesses that he was born in that very village! And he learned his letters at the village school! And his aged mother lives in a cottage there still!

And Ann, very sensibly, says no, she isn’t going to marry T.Tembaron straight off, nor is she going to put up with his cancelling their steerage passages for tomorrow and booking them first class staterooms so they can travel along with him in three weeks time: he’s got to get used to being Temple Barholm of Temple Barholm, lord of the manor with £70K per annum, and see all the Society beauties whom he is now eligible to marry, and when he’s had a year of that she’ll think about it.

And from then on the plot moves to Lancashire and more shenanigans ensue.

I found the book paradoxically very slow to read but entertaining. The kind of book that is supposed to be your sole entertainment for the entire week. And this appears to be a linear function of age, since I once tried reading The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, and that was clearly supposed to occupy you for a month. It took me weeks to read the first half of T. Tembarom, but sometime ago I was stuck on a train with nothing else to do (as God and FHB intended) and the second half was quite the page-turner.

The best part of the book was how inspired I was by T. Tembarom’s unflagging determination and even less flaggable good cheer. The man spends significant portions of the book trudging through blizzards and being icily snubbed by high society beauties. And while he might not be grinning at those particular times (he spends most of the book with an ‘extraordinarily friendly grin’), he sure as heck doesn’t let them get him down either.

The other thing I got out of it was a renewed appreciation for how lucky I am to be born in the 21st century. Nearly all the choices I have right now in terms of career options and people I could talk to are more interesting than those available to a character who is a literal duke.

Something that really stands out is how the position of women in society has changed. There are two characters, upper-class women who see no possible future before them apart from making a rich marriage and starving in genteel poverty. However, it’s hard to tell how much of this is the British upper-class refusal to stoop to ‘trade’.

I was far more frustrated by Little Ann Hutchinson’s attitude to her father and FHB’s implicit approval of her attitude.
The man is utterly without the slightest shred of self-awareness and humility. Little Ann spends half the book carefully steering him out of the clutches of various conmen and massaging his male ego. While Mr Hutchinson bloviates about the native shrewdness of Lancashire folk and how “women are not up to much at business”, Little Ann, under the guise of “I am but a girl and know nothing of business of men’s affairs”, exclaims about how adroitly he handles all the speculators that come to them and how clever he must be to find the loopholes in their proposal. Quickly enough Mr. Hutchinson begins to think that it was actually him who figured out all the holes in the conmen’s stories, and talks with extreme condescension towards little Ann. In Little Ann’s place I would started punching walls. On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about the way Ann treats her father’s character as an obstacle to be worked around. Why not be a bit more direct? It feels a little manipulative, though it’s very clear she loves him, and wants him to be happy and keep his illusions unshattered (while making sure they don’t get scammed).
While I’m not sure I could do it, it seems as if, given the constraints of her time and place in society, little Ann behaves in  the way that is optimal for achieving all her varied goals.
I suppose I give the man some credit for realizing how much better things go when Ann’s around, and making sure she’s always with him when embarking on a new business transaction.

While the book was published in 1910, it feels like it’s describing a much older time, and indeed the mention of President Garfield’s assassination puts the story in the 1880s.

Would I recommend this book?
Tough to say. I certainly don’t regret reading it, and I intend to continue singing the phrase ‘T. Tembar-om-om’ to the tune of the hymn ‘Here I Am, Lord’, anytime I need to be reminded of the power of approaching life with an “extraordinarily friendly grin”.

I did, however, approach it in exactly the right spirit, (thanks to A J Hall) prepared to look past FHB’s insane Victorian morality and style to find the good parts.

It’s always an interesting exercise to read old books, since even if the plot isn’t very compelling, you can always turn it into an anthropological study of the author’s milieu.

If you can stand the pace, and T. T. thinking about how he wants to embrace little Ann for the hundredth time, T. Tembarom‘s free on Gutenberg – have fun!

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