The Third Miss Symons by F M Mayor

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.

Holiday Reading

I’ve just finished The Enchanted April which was, as the title promised, simply enchanting. A review will be forthcoming at some point in the near future, but for now I am going to review the books I read on my recent Greek island holiday, as The Enchanted April reminded me of the pleasure I had on my holiday, which again reminded me that I hadn’t reviewed all of the books I read on said holiday. So here they are – a Virago haul gathered from one of my favourite book shopping haunts – – many a bargain to be had and it all goes to a good cause, so it’s guilt free shopping.

The first book I read was E M Delafield’s The Way Things Are, which is sadly out of print but used copies are fairly easy to get hold of. I was very much looking forward to reading this, as I love the Provincial Lady books and I also really enjoyed Persephone’s reprint of Consequences, so I was expecting great things. Nicola Beauman of Persephone wrote the Introduction that’s not really an Introduction and should actually be a Conclusion because it spoils the story if you read it first (I never learn) and in it she states this is her favourite Delafield, so once I read that I was practically giddy with excitement expecting a masterpiece to surpass even Provincial Lady proportions. But, to be perfectly honest, I was just the littlest bit disappointed. Oh, it was witty and it was touching and so true in the way only Delafield can be; she perfectly describes the frustrations and boredoms of looking after a house and children and how futile it can all seem, but rather than lifting all of this with humour like she does in the Provincial Lady, in The Way Things Are, it all stays rather flat and sad, and I was left feeling rather sorry for Laura, the leading lady, whose humdrum life with her monosyballic husband Alfred will never give her what she needs. She’s a rather colourless heroine though, who is a bit too passive for my liking; she seems incapable of coping with life in general, and it is her sister, Christine, who defies social convention to live the life she wants that actually ended up being the focus and the delight of the book for me. It was good, and it was funny in places, but this is the sort of book that needs to make its mind up whether it should be funny or sad because it can’t be both, and in trying to be both, it just ends up being not really much of either.

Next up was F M Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter, which describes the slow decline and break up of an Edwardian family as it enters the post war era. It is mainly about the beautiful Ron, who can have any man she wants, but can’t find one she actually does want, and the way she is torn between her life of frivolity and fun and the duty she owes to her declining father, trying to keep his ancestral home while he is drowning in debt. This book seems to be about bright young things and a girl’s search for a husband, but it is also very much about parents and children and family and the mixture of guilt, love and duty that binds them all together. I loved it; I fell in love with the characters, I cried just a little bit, and I got swept away by the gentle, all pervading sadness of it all…of how regrets and mistakes can shape lives and take us down paths we never wanted to go, and how, too late, we realise that we’ve gone too far to ever turn back. It is wonderful and I long to read more of F M Mayor’s work.

Last but not least came Ann Veronica by H G Wells. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, as I’ve read a lot of books on women’s history, single women, spinsters and such like over the past few months, perhaps reflecting my fear that I will become one, eaten to death by my cats once I have scared all my friends away through my bitterness, and Ann Veronica kept cropping up as an example of the ‘New Woman’. So I thought I’d see what H G Wells had to say about this phenomenon. It is supposed to be based on Amber Reeves, Maud Pember Reeves’ (of Round About a Pound a Week’s fame) daughter, who had an affair, and a child, by Wells (who didn’t?), and is about the intelligent, beautiful and headstrong Ann Veronica, who longs to be educated and self sufficient and have adventures, free from the confines of marriage and childbearing. She runs away from home to live in London and go to college, and there many men fall at her feet, she gets involved with the woman’s rights movements of the day etc etc etc until she finds true love outside of her social class and gives that all up, which was interesting as it raised the question of whether women really wanted their independence, and gives the impression that Wells thought women’s true happiness comes within marriage, and they just need to accept it. It’s good and very interesting from a historical perspective, and also fascinating to have a man’s perspective on the woman’s question, but I did get a bit annoyed with the Ann Veronica worship by every man whom she meets..she never says anything particularly profound as far as I’m concerned and if she looked anything like Virago’s chosen portrait on the front cover, I’d be running away, not towards her! And Wells’ treatment of Ann Veronica was a little patronising, showing her at her happiest when she is married and pregnant and being the Victorian ideal of woman…so I’m not really sure what this was book was trying to say…perhaps that the ideal of the New Woman could never work in real life, as women want to be wives and mothers anyway? It’s open to interpretation, of course.

And here is a picture of where I was staying while reading these novels; Molyvos, in Lesbos. Absolutely stunning, and the perfect place to get away from it all, relax, and read. I’ll be back again soon, I hope.