Friday, February 08, 2013


The Lovely Ambition, Mary Ellen Chase, W W Norton, 1960, 288 pp

This novel was both a lovely surprise and an example of the split personality of the 1960 bestseller list. In among the somewhat shocking contemporary books about sexual and political matters of mid 20th century life, the #7 bestseller concerns family life and the power of religion.

I should have known it would be good because Mary Ellen Chase was an excellent writer. The Lovely Ambition is every bit as good as my best loved book of hers, Windswept.

A British family at the turn of the 20th century makes the amazing transition to life in the United States. John Tillyard, an unassuming, earnest young Wesleyan parson, accepts a call to take over a Methodist parish in downeast Maine. Though the move is from one rural setting to another, the contrasts are many between their English village with its conflicts between high church and low to an American community where democracy is only constrained by local habits.

Tillyard has a brilliant but long-suffering wife and three children. He is a dreamy sort of guy who loves to read and take long walks. He also has a love of sheep, shepherds, and the lambing season. In other words, an impractical sort more interested in people than in making a living.

Once the family is settled in Maine, John becomes a part-time chaplain at an asylum for the mentally deranged in the nearest city. Before long he begins to invite some of the patients for visits to their home. His belief is that by interacting with "normal" people in a calm and loving environment, they can heal from their personal traumas. Naturally, the results are mixed.

While the sexual is certainly not emphasized, the psychological questions of the time are. This aspect makes for an interesting relation to The Chapman Report in terms of examining the best ways to approach human problems.

In tone and writing style, I was reminded of some novels by Elizabeth Goudge, also of Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, both of which feature unreliable fathers as seen through the eyes of their daughters.

The Lovely Ambition is out of print and hard to find but I am glad I tracked down a used paperback from Alibris.

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