Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Spinster of this Parish - W.B. Maxwell

I'm back!  Did you miss me?  I suspect a lot of people barely noticed, since I wasn't away for all that long - but I usually try to post at least five times a week, so it felt like a lengthy holiday for me.  Sometimes a break is needed to keep blogging fresh for me - and my week-and-a-bit was enough to get me raring for more.  Let's kick things off with a review to fill the 1922 slot on A Century of Books, eh?

It was in this article by Sarah Waters (an introduction to Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes) that I first heard about Spinster of this Parish by W.B. Maxwell.  (A William, it turns out, but not that William Maxwell.)  It was only mentioned in passing, alongside F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (which sadly underwhelmed me) but it was enough to pique my interest.  Luckily Oxford library has a copy in its store, and eventually I got around to reading it.  It's rather extraordinary.

The action kicks off in 1920, with Mildred Parker (age 25) visiting 'old maid' Miss Emmeline Verinder (age 50) in the hopes of receiving some advice.  Mildred is 'that mixture of shrewdness and innocence which makes the typical modern girl seem at once so shallow and so baffling.'  She has fallen in love with a man of whom her parents do not approve - and is bewailing this state to Miss Verinder when she stops suddenly, and suggests that Mildred might not be able to help her, as she has never experienced 'the passions'...

Rewind to 1895, and Emmeline's youth.  We're still in the third person, so it's not entirely Emmeline Verinder's perspective, but she is certainly taking centre stage.  She is engaging in the late-Victorian social whirl, when she happens to meet celebrated explorer Anthony Dyke... and yes, dear reader, Emmeline is smitten.
How had he captivated her?  She did not know.  Was it only because he was the incarnate antithesis of Kensington; because he was individual, unlike the things on either side of him, not arranged on any pattern, not dull, monotonous, or flat; a thing alive in a place where all else was sleeping or dead?  Neither then nor at any future time did she attempt mentally to differentiate between the impression he had made upon her as himself all complete, with the dark hair, the penetrating but impenetrable eyes, the record, the fame, and the impression she might have received if any of these attributes had been taken away from him.  Say, if he had been an unknown Mr. Tomkins instead of a known Mr. Dyke.  Absurd.  The man and the name were one. [...] He was Anthony Dyke.  He was her lord, her prince, her lover.
In other words, he is about equal measures Tarzan and Mr. Rochester.  Indeed, he borrows more than a penetrating stare from the world's most beloved bigamist - for Dyke [er, SPOILERS!], like Rochester, has a madwoman in the attic.  Like poor Rochester (for we can't our brooding heroes being too cruel, can we?) Dyke was tricked into marrying a madwoman (variety of mental illness not mentioned) who is now not, actually, in an attic but in an asylum.

This is where things start to get a bit daring.  Dyke is rather more honest than Rochester, and tells Emmeline about his wife.  She, in turn, decides that their love is more important than society's morals and her parents' approval - and becomes, as it were, his mistress.  This was pretty daring for the time, wasn't it?  Shunned by her parents (although, to do Maxwell justice, Mr. Verinder 'was not in any respects the conventional old-fashioned father that lingered in the comic literature of the period') Emmeline takes her maid Louisa and lives elsewhere.

Being an explorer, Dyke must explore - and he's high-tailing it off to South America.  They have rather a rushed emotional goodbye and he sets sail... only... wait... Emmeline has sneakily crept onboard!

This, blog-readers, is where everything goes mad.

The next section of the novel takes place in South America - and I highly doubt that Maxwell had ever gone nearer to it than Land's End.  They go emerald-hunting, get lost in caves, involved in duels... it's insane, and entirely different from the novel I was expecting.  Had I seen the cover (below) then I might have been better prepared for the excesses of Spinster of this Parish, which were in no way betrayed by the novel's title.

The Sheik by Ethel M. Hull was published in 1919, and was wildly popular into the 1920s - although Spinster of this Parish involves none of the disturbing rape fantasies of The Sheik, it's clear that Maxwell (and many others) were influenced by the popularity for exoticism.  I, however, found this section rather tedious, and flicked through it...

Finally we are back in English society - Emmeline grows gradually less shunned, and Dyke's adventures continue abroad without her.  He is determined to succeed in his quest to get to the South Pole... will he survive or not?  Maxwell has rather calmed down by now, and Dyke's activities take place off stage, thankfully - instead, we see the changing views of upper-class society, and Emmeline's unwavering loyalty to her absent lover.

Picture source
Ah, yes, their love.  I got a bit tired of that.  He is physically perfect and unimaginably manly; she is womanfully patient and devotedly passionate.  Hmm.  Not the most original of pairings.  A lot made sense to me when I found out that W.B. Maxwell is the son of none other than Mary Elizabeth Braddon - of Lady Audley's Secret fame.  He certainly inherited her love of sensation romance literature (did I mention the blackmail plot that's thrown in?)

And yet - I enjoyed an awful lot of it.  Maxwell's writing is, if not exceptional, consistently good.  He is quite witty throughout, and certainly writes better than most of the authors who would warrant a similar dustjacket image.  When we were in England, looking at the workings of society, it was very much my cup of tea - even if the characters were a little too good to be true.  At one point I even thought of suggesting it to Persephone Books.  But... I couldn't get past the insane section in the middle.  The bizarre trip through South America, duels-n-all, is what will make Spinster of this Parish so memorable - but also that which lets down the overall writing, and makes it feel rather silly.

So, a strange book with which to make me blog return!  If nothing else, it has taught be that one must not only forswear to judge a book by its cover - similar caution must be taken as regards a book's title.


20 comments:

  1. Hi Simon
    Welcome back and wishing you a great summer

    I am interested in WB Maxwell's Spinster of the Parish. You presented an excellent book review

    Helen xx

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  2. Welcome back and of course we missed you!

    "He is physically perfect and unimaginably manly; she is womanfully patient and devotedly passionate."

    As Marvin would say, "Ghastly, isn't it?"

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    1. Ghastly indeed! (I'm afraid I don't know who Marvin is... but I think there's a Marvin in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - is that the right one?)

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    2. Indeed he is and a better judge of human nature in literature you will be hard put to find!

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  3. What a book!!! Love the cover illustration as well. Things seem quite quiet on the net when your blog is quiet. Always nice to see what you get up to over there on the other side of the world!! Glad you enjoyed your break. Pam

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    1. Aww, thanks Pam! And, yes, this book is quite something!

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  4. Glad you're back Simon - you always point us to such interesting books!

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    1. I certainly head towards the unusual - and this one's more unusual than, er, usual!

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  5. This sounds quite wonderful! Great review Simon. So glad you had a refreshing break though lovely to have you back blogging of course!

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    1. Thanks Donna! It's nice to be back - a break does make things more fun when you return, doesn't it?

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  6. Oooh, sounds delishious (akkk, I can't believe I just spelled it that way, but I think I'll leave it because it seems so appropriate). It reads like the scenario of a stupendous romantic adventure movie of the era, complete with social and moral commentary. I must see if it's available at Gutenberg.

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    1. It does seem somewhat appropriate, doesn't it? Although, in justice to Maxwell, I must say the dialogue was pretty well written - perhaps that's why I could cope with it better than many romance novels!

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  7. Not Gutenberg, but here.
    http://archive.org/details/spinsterofthispa00maxw

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    1. Thank you - I've rather overspent my book budget lately!!

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  8. Welcome back! Sounds like he has inherited his mother's ability to construct a plot so loony it keeps you reading on disbelief. Love the cover!

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    1. Isn't the cover something? It would have lessened the surprise for me, had I seen it ;)

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  9. This sounds marvellous, I'm downloading it now!

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    1. Looking forward to hearing your response!

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