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All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field

All This, and Heaven Too

Published in 1938 by The Macmillan Company.
596 pages.
Top 10 Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller in 1938 (#6) and 1939 (#2).

One Sentence Summary: Governess Henriette Desportes witnesses domestic strife in the household of her employers– strife that leads to a suicide, murder, and contributes to revolution in 19th century France in this true story of surviving the fallout of a scandal.

How I Found It: There’s been an old copy of All This, and Heaven Too in my parents’ house for years.  I assume it was a thrift store selection by my grandmother, who loved dramatic films as much as I do.  I finally read it several months ago and I am so glad I did.

The Author: Rachel Field lived from 1894-1942.  Field wrote the 1930 Newbery awardee (for children’s literature) Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, and numerous others, including a winner of the Caldecott Medal for children’s picture books.

The Setting:  Primarily France, and then America, beginning in the 1840s.

The Narrative: First and foremost, please note that this book is historical fiction—and features actual events.

The book begins with a letter of introduction in which the author, Rachel Field, addresses the subject of the novel: her great-aunt, Henriette Desportes.  “Although I never knew you in life, as a child I often cracked butternuts on your tombstone.”  This beautiful letter describes the research that inspired the writing of the book.  “I set down here only what may have happened.  Perhaps I have put words into your mouth that you would never have said.  My thoughts, at best, can never be your thoughts.  I know that, and still I must write them, since you yourself emerge from the web of fact and legend as definite as the spider that clears the intricate maze of its own making.”

The Story: Henriette Desportes is 28 years old when the novel opens in 1841.  She is traveling from England to her homeland of France now English charge is of age and no longer in need of a governess.  Henriette has secured a position teaching a prominent family’s youngest children.  The Duc and Duchesse de Praslin are Catholic; the Duchesse strongly disapproves of Henriette’s Protestant faith.  The children find it easy to love their governess because they are terrified of their mother.

Time and trials make Henriette aware of the strife between the oft-hysterical Duchess and her long-suffering husband.  The Duc often begs Henriette to remain in the household—and eventually develops romantic feelings for her.  Years pass… everyone has a breaking point, including mistreated husbands and the nation of France.

The Themes:  Faith, growth, fortitude, solitude, loneliness, love, passion, individuality.

The Best Thing: The book has romance without being a romance novel.  It’s more the romance provided by setting—say, attending a dance or a fancy party—and the love of a way of life—than love for a particular person.  This is not a love story, yet it has its love scenes.  It’s a story of recovery and growth from the most terrible of circumstances without sacrificing personal identity.  Similarly, it is a novel of faith without being strongly religious or even preachy.

The writing is rich with description without being too wordy:

“Her first impression was of disorder.   The small room seemed overflowing with costumes and baskets of flowers whose fragrance mingled with the scent of powder and pomades.  Then she became aware only of the woman who dominated it.  Rachel lay on a divan wrapped in a cloak of crimson wool.  Under her make-up she looked utterly spent and no flecks of light stirred in the somber darkness of her eyes.  Seen at such close range there was no disguising the worn lines of that face the hollows that showed too prominently at cheeks and throat.  But the full red lips curved into a smile as a long transparent hand was extended in greeting” (pg. 522).

The Worst Thing: The story continues many years past the climax, and the last few chapters drag a little.

Of Note:  Rachel Field, the novel’s author, was from a talented family.  Her great-grandfather was the well-known American minister David Dudley Field.  Her father was Dr. Matthew Dickinson Field, Jr.  Her great uncles held positions of Supreme Court Justice, clergyman, writer, U.S. Representative, and businessman.  You can read more about their family on Find a Grave.com.

Rachel Field died in 1942, at the age of 47 and only four years after this novel was published.

To Read It: The novel is available on Amazon.com.

The Film

Released in 1940.
Produced by Warner Brothers.
Directed by Anatole Litvak.
142 minutes.
Black and white.

The Best Thing: The movie is a flashback framed in Henriette’s new classroom—her past is discovered by her new pupils and she is forced to tell the story for herself.

The Worst Thing:  Because the bulk of the movie is a flashback, action in later chapters is simplified or skipped altogether.  While this works for a movie, I missed certain scenes from the book.

Differences from the Novel: The movie selects the best events of the book and makes several changes that benefit the medium.

The first is that the story is framed—instead of meeting Henriette as she concludes a journey from England to France, we see her have a disastrous first meeting with her teenage students on her first day as a French teacher in an exclusive New York girls’ school.  The rest of the story is a flashback until the end of the movie when we see the girls react to her story.  It works beautifully, despite many pages being scrapped.

The second change is the introduction of a supporting character from later in the story to Henriette’s journey to France.  Both changes improve the movie into something both believable and watchable in two and a half hours.

Cast: Bette Davis is great as she always is.  Charles Boyer is equally competent as a happy man altered by unhappy circumstances. Richard Nichols played the youngest Praslin child, Reynald.  He was in other classics like Kitty Foyle and Blossoms in the Dust.  He gives a good performance, especially considering he was only about four years old when the movie was filmed.

The standout in the cast is Barbara O’Neil as the hysterical Duchesse.  The scenes that have her berating her husband and dominating her children were just as written in the book.

And Harry Davenport (Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind; Grandpa in Meet Me in St. Louis, etc) has a supporting role.

Awards: It received 3 Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actress—Barbara O’Neil (lost to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath), Best Black-and-White Cinematography—Ernest Haller (lost to George Barnes for Rebecca) and Best Picture (lost to Selznick International Pictures for Rebecca).

To Watch It:  The DVD is available at Amazon and currently priced at $7.40.

If you’d rather watch a trailer first, view one on Youtube:

It’s a must-see.  Certain scenes from the book, such as Henriette’s introduction to Reynald and Berthe in the presence of their mother, play out perfectly.  And for me, this is the ultimate Bette Davis costume drama.

Your Comments Invited
Share your thoughts below.  Thanks for reading, and have a very merry and safe holiday season!

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