After having spent almost two weeks reading The Lost Traveller, I was in the mood for a shorter novel. The Third Miss Symons is incredibly short; it must have taken me no longer than an hour and a half to read it. This would probably make it more of a novella than a novel, I suppose, but I’ll say novel anyway, because it didn’t feel short while I was reading it.
I have read an F M Mayor before, The Squire’s Daughter, which I wrote about here, and I greatly enjoyed it. The Third Miss Symons shares a common theme of women and their place in the world, but while in The Squire’s Daughter there is a happy ending and a likeable heroine, in The Third Miss Symons there is the portrayal of a woman who is both pitiable and contemptable, and it is really quite difficult to feel for her, even though there are plenty of reasons why you should.
The central character is Henrietta ‘Etta’ Symons, a plain, uninteresting member of a large family with a nasty temper yet a great capacity for love. However, due to her temper and diffident character, she is considered difficult and unloveable by others, and so her attempts at friendship and generosity are frequently rejected and people simply cannot be bothered to try with her. Etta has a chance at marriage, but this is thwarted by her older sister, who marries not long afterwards, and Etta becomes very bitter about this. As the years go by and her sisters get married and become mothers, she is left bored, roleless and increasingly bad tempered. The sadness of her life is that she is not useful or necessary to anyone; her presence is merely tolerated by others with all the gifts of a full life involving husbands and children and friends, and while she understands that it is her temperament that makes her unlikeable, and she tries to change, she finds herself unable to become the woman she would like to be, loving and loved.
Etta is the odd one out, the ‘difficult’ person we avoid talking to because it’s awkward or uncomfortable. I have met many people like her; people who seem to not have been born with the innate social grace most of us take for granted; the ability to have easy conversations, to enjoy the company of others, to say the right things, to listen, to sympathise, to have a good laugh, to share life’s joys and sorrows with honesty and love and compassion. While Etta longs to be able to do those things, she just doesn’t have the capacity to. And as she grows older, she loses the desire to be agreeable and just accepts that is who she is. Unlike many of the ‘surplus’ women written about in late 19th and early 20th century fiction, Etta doesn’t pine for marriage or children; she doesn’t particularly want it for love or companionship, she just wanted the status it would have brought her, and she seeks that status by being irritable, controlling and throwing money around where it is not wanted. She has the incredible misfortune of being a woman desperate to be loved and important to others, and somehow never grasping how that is achieved.
Mayor sums up perfectlythe lack of status unmarried women had in Etta’s father’s attitude towards her. As a man hasn’t chosen to marry her, her father thinks she cannot be worth much, as a man’s opinion of a woman is how he judges women. As no man thinks Etta is worthwhile, no one thinks she is worth much, and she is left to drift aimlessly through life, unwanted, unloved, and with no real purpose. Of course Etta has brought most of this upon herself, but still, it is a sad state of affairs that made me feel an intense sorrow for the many women who must have lived lives like this; unmarried, unwanted, a burden on their families and with no place and no role, brought up solely for marriage and so when left alone they have no ability or capacity to do anything apart from ‘good works’ amongst the poor. What a narrow life they were condemned to.
I went through a phase of reading ‘single surplus woman’ type books a while ago; Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street, George Gissing’s The Odd Women, Rachel Ferguson’s Alas Poor Lady, Virginia Nicholson’s excellent Singled Out, E M Delafield’s Consequences…but this was by far the most depressing of them all. Other women have found a use, a hope, in their singleness, but Etta, well, she was content to do nothing with her life. She lived with no hope in anyone or anything, because no one and nothing had any hope in her. This is a quietly tragic and profound novel, and I look forward to reading the final F M Mayor published by Virago, The Rector’s Daughter. As a single woman herself, Mayor certainly understood the women she wrote about, and I have heard The Rector’s Daughter is her best.