I’m such a sucker for ugly duckling stories. There’s something so hopeful about starting life as one thing and blossoming into something wonderful, a state I’ve forever aspired to. I guess I’ve always thought of myself as an ugly duckling and have been waiting for my moment of metamorphosis my whole life, beginning as a 9 year old. That summer my brother, the chubby little junior high brainiac, transformed into a tall, dark and handsome (and thin!) high school student. Of course I thought that same thing would surely happen to me and I waited and waited and waited, but my moment just didn’t come…I stayed short, a little chubby (at least until college), with a nickname of “Mousey” after the chubby Mouse in Cinderella. But I’ve always been hopeful.
The other night I happened upon one of the classic ugly duckling stories…Olivia de Havilland in her Academy Award winning performance in The Heiress with Montgomery Clift (tall, dark and handsome). Olivia played a plain, shy but very intelligent woman in the shadow of her incredibly lovely (but dead) mother. Her father measured her every action and appearance by the standard set by her mother. Not fair! Anyway, it’s a great movie and Olivia gets her pound of flesh in the end. Very satisfying!
Well, The Charm School by Susan Wiggs is another duckling story set in Boston in the 1850s when women were lively, cinched to within an inch of their lives, and measured by how wealthy a man they could land. Enter Miss Isadora Peabody, of the Boston Peabodys, tall, gangly, plain, bespeckled, shy and invisible amongst her beautiful parents, brothers and sisters. No one wants to dance with Isadora, her parents despair of ever getting her married, her family loves her but doesn’t understand her, and in fact sent her off to live with a maiden aunt in Salem until she was 14. Isadora soaked up learning from her aunt, languages, history, politics, all subjects unsuitable for young girls of wealth and stature in 1850. Isadora longs to use her education to right the wrongs of society such as slavery, but being invisible she just can’t imagine that she can ever make a difference. She has resigned herself to being the comfort of her parents in their old age and the loving aunt to the children of her siblings, but as for herself, she just can’t see that her life could ever have meaning.
In a moment of bravery and desperation Isadora talks her way onto a ship bound for Rio as a translator and companion to the mother of the Captain of the Silver Swan. The ugly duckling has begun her metamorphosis with this one remarkable decision.
The change from ugly duckling to swan takes some surprising twists and turns. Of course like any good romance there are misunderstandings and misplaced yearnings, but also some very touching interplay between Isadora and the crew of the Silver Swan as it makes its way from Boston to Rio and back. The Charm School was such a lovely way to spend an evening leaving me still hopeful for my “swan” moment.