Monday, September 15, 2014

T. Tembaron by Francis Hodgson Burnett

T. Tembaron is one of my favorite books by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Like the bulk of her work (see a complete list if her works by category here), it was new to me a few months ago, but it is amongst her novels that should still be well-known and celebrated. The book begins with an explanation of the main character's name:
The boys at the Brooklyn public school which he attended did not know what the "T." stood for. He would never tell them. All he said in reply to questions was: "It don't stand for nothin'. You've gotter have a' 'nitial, ain't you?" His name was, in fact, an almost inevitable school-boy modification of one felt to be absurd and pretentious. His Christian name was Temple, which became "Temp." His surname was Barom, so he was at once "Temp Barom." In the natural tendency to avoid waste of time it was pronounced as one word, and the letter p being superfluous and cumbersome, it easily settled itself into "Tembarom," and there remained. By much less inevitable processes have surnames evolved themselves as centuries rolled by. Tembarom liked it, and soon almost forgot he had ever been called anything else.
The name is of utmost importance to the plot, but Tembaron doesn't know it as slugs through life on the streets of New York on "twenty per," as he describes his salary, He's content with a dreary third-floor room in a boarding house, and ecstatic to be given an opportunity to write the gossip column  newspaper that employs him. Raised to "twenty-five per," he now feels confident speaking of his future intentions to Ann Hutchinson, another resident of the boarding house, who is in New York with her father while he tries to sell his invention. The honor of trudging through the snow in worn shoes so that he can someday marry Ann is all he ever wanted in life, when his real name, Temple Temple Barholm, suddenly interferes.

For this fully American young man proves to be the only heir to a great and established fortune in England. Ann, understanding the implications of his inheritance better than Tembaron, tells him she will not consent to marry until he has spent a year in his new life, and he, dutiful, honest, and loyal, heads of to England to try his hand at being lord of the manor. The effect is entirely comic (his first interactions with his valet are hysterical). He makes horrendous social mistakes and a slew of shady relatives attempt to take advantage of his simplicity, but he begins to make real and powerful friends as well, like his neighbor the Duke of Stone. Tembarom might be uneducated and hopelessly informal, but as he himself says of those who would take advantage of him, "I'm on to them," and to his one new relation not looking for anything of him, having been treated as a drudge all her life, he is an absolute hero.

Part of Tembaron's character, like most of Burnett's heroes and heroines, is that he is almost supernaturally good, and there is no better illustration of this than his treatment of Miss Alicia Temple Barholm. About to leave the place where she had been suffered to dwell for an alms house, Tembaron intervenes like an angel of justice and mercy:

"I beg pardon, sir, but Higgins's cart has come for Miss Temple Barholm's box; he is asking when she wants the trap." 
"She doesn't want it at all," answered Tembarom. "Carry her trunk up- stairs again. She's not going away." 
The lack of proper knowledge contained in the suggestion that Burrill should carry trunks upstairs caused Miss Alicia to quail in secret, but she spoke with outward calm. 
"No, Burrill," she said. "I am not going away." 
"Very good, Miss," Burrill replied, and with impressive civility he prepared to leave the room. Tembarom glanced at the tea-things. 
"There's only one cup here," he said. "Bring one for me." 
Burrill's expression might perhaps have been said to start slightly. 
"Very good, sir," he said, and made his exit. Miss Alicia was fluttering again. 
"That cup was really for you, Mr. Temple Barholm," she ventured. 
"Well, now it's for you, and I've let him know it," replied Tembarom. 
"Oh, please," she said in an outburst of feeling--"please let me tell you how grateful--how grateful I am!" 
But he would not let her. 
"If you do," he said, "I'll tell you how grateful I am, and that'll be worse. No, that's all fixed up between us. It goes. We won't say any more about it." 
He took the whole situation in that way, as though he was assuming no responsibility which was not the simple, inevitable result of their drifting across each other--as though it was only what any man would have done, even as though she was a sort of delightful, unexpected happening. He turned to the tray. 
"Say, that looks all right, doesn't it?" he said. "Now you are here, I like the way it looks. I didn't yesterday." 
Burrill himself brought the extra cup and saucer and plate. He wished to make sure that his senses had not deceived him. But there she sat who through years had existed discreetly in the most unconsidered rooms in an uninhabited wing, knowing better than to presume upon her privileges--there she sat with an awed and rapt face gazing up at this new outbreak into Temple Barholm's and "him joking and grinning as though he was as pleased as Punch." 

Behind all the wonderful cultural clashes and misunderstanding lies a mystery. Before learning of his new identity, Tembaron finds a man suffering from amnesia in a frozen alley and takes him home. When he goes to England, the man dubbed "Mr. Strangeways" goes with him.  The name, though apt enough in a New York boarding house, seems much more questionable on someone who obviously feels so much more at home in the genteel atmosphere at Temple Barholm (oh yeah, he's Temple Temple Barholm of Temple Barholm) than its new owner. 

The book is absolutely delightful. The character of Tembaron closely resembles that of a more minor character called G. Seldon from The Shuttle, another of my favorite, written a decade earlier. I think Burnett found the young entrepreneurial New Yorker to delightful and irresistible to not give him a book all his own. T. Tembaron is a must-read story and you can start it right now for free:

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