This story about a “village old maid” transforming into a modern flapper in London may very well be one of my favorite of this era. The Immortal Girl by Berta Ruck is an unusual hybrid of a book for it is not only a romance, but also crosses over into the science fiction and fantasy genres, complete with a “Jules Verne story of Rejuvenation” reference. The Immortal Girl was published in 1925 by Dodd, Mead, and Company and is the epitome of obscure Jazz Age fiction.
The Immortal Girl had barely arrived from Babylon Revisited when I found myself finished with part one of the book. The exposition is littered with unnecessary literary allusions and parts of the entire book are bogged down with rambling imagery I could live without, but when Berta Ruck is on, she’s great. Admittedly, I started reading this book in March and have been reading it periodically over the span of three months. Even though the book itself is perfectly delightful, its title kind of freaked me out all through April and May. Please excuse me if this post doesn’t get too philosophical on any of the main concepts about life brought up by this book.
Martha Marigold Owen is young for the first time at the end of the nineteenth century. She lives in a Welsh rectory and is brought up by her strict Cousin Winifred. As she ages, she longs for love, but as time passes by she becomes known as “poor Miss Martha” and most of her relations pass away. She’s on her way to visit her friend Prudence Walsh in London when she meets an old man on the train who at first Martha suspects may be a religious fanatic about to preach something along the lines of, “STOP, YOU ARE ON THE WAY TO HELL.” And with that, Ruck had me hooked.
Turns out the weird old man is a professor who offers the forty-five year old Martha Marigold Owen an elixir of youth which will turn her back about twenty years. Martha accepts the youth recipe but refuses the antidote, and has the elixir made up at a local pharmacy. She shocks her life-long friend Prudence by downing the elixir right before heading out to an opera, and that’s where things get interesting.
Martha changes her name to Marigold and dresses as a flapper, but her nineteenth century personality continually clashes against her appearance as a modern girl of the moment. Ruck writes fascinating comparisons of two very different generations, which she often revisits. The generation gap element of this text was one of its strengths, adding interest and dimension.
Since this is a romance, of course Marigold is presented with two suitors: Billy Iffley and Colonel Wynstanley Stock. She meets Iffley at the 1920s London equivalent of a NASCAR event. Ruck describes Billy Ilffey as being incredibly handsome with gorgeous hair and a fantastic smile. When Ruck also added, “And, to him, women were people, too,” Iffley became my favorite romance hero to date, and Ruck instantly became one of my new favorite authors. However, later on, Iffley goes on a rant comparing women to dogs. It was a disturbing rant, but for some deranged reason Marigold doesn’t seem to mind or take even the slightest offense.
Colonel Stock is a figure from Marigold’s past, but Stock doesn’t seem to remember her. He’s described as having “rolls of surplus flesh” and being “rigid, selfish, unimaginative.” A couple of years older than Marigold’s true age, Stock is a boorish hypocrite who seems creepily obsessed with Marigold’s child-like appearance, repeating disturbing comments about the subject. In short, this one’s a real winner, and Marigold knows it but keeps him around anyway.
Marigold figures her true age is the deal-breaker for these suitors, so she finally confesses to each of them that she is actually forty-five with unsurprising results. Stock can’t leave the room fast enough, but Iffley sticks around. Then, just to wrap it all up, the old professor with both the original elixir recipe as well as the antidote dies in a train wreck. So Martha Marigold, the twice young girl, goes off into the sunset while the birds sing.