Monday, 16 March 2015

Our Vicar's Wife's Persephone Prize essay

And, as promised - here is Mum's entry to the competition!

‘How did I get here?’

The life-changing choices of ‘superfluous’ women and ‘expendable’ men in works by seven writers from the Persephone bookshelf.

We all make choices throughout our lives. In this essay I aim to explore the concept of ‘choice’ by looking at some of the diverse outcomes dictated by even the smallest choice in six Persephone novels and with reference to ideas in Ruth Adams’ A Woman’s Place. The effects ofchoice’ are not restricted to women, but I will start my exploration here.

Choices made on the cusp of womanhood can dictate what kind of life a ‘girl’ will live. The ‘girl figure (as opposed to the ‘woman’ in so many books on the Persephone bookshelf) is often regarded as an unwritten page, to be moulded by the man who claims her.

In Family Roundabout, Richmal Crompton writes of Mrs Fowler in these terms, as she recalls the early days of her marriage to Henry:

‘He had been ten years her senior, and she had fallen in love with him at their first meeting, realizing even then how unlike she was to the wife he wanted. He wanted, she knew, a ‘little woman’, clinging, adoring, self-effacing; ready to accept and defer to his judgement – a replica, in short, of his mother. And deliberately, determinedly, she had set to work to make herself that woman, becoming, for love of him, stupid and docile, hiding her intelligence as though it were some secret vice’.[1]

In many of the portraits of adult social life, mores, and manners, the ‘Persephone woman’ is defined by rigid strictures often imposed by more powerful figures in society. Sometimes these are men, sometimes women of an older generation.  The expectations thus placed upon the young, mould their choices and narrow their sphere. We watch them struggle with their desire to move out into the wider world, snared and captured by the subtle pressures exerted by home and family - as seen in Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, where a seemingly innocent arrangement brings a family’s security tumbling down in ruins.[2]

Choice of employment (or none), of marriage partner, and of personal happiness appears constrained. From within a cage of respectability, the young woman may perhaps look enviously on her more sophisticated and independent sister. However, the ‘unhappy woman’, the ‘woman jaded by the world’, a figure of hollow pride and flawed character[3] is designed to attract dislike or in some cases pity from the reader. As Henry James pointed out in What Maisie Knew[4] and The Awkward Age,[5] ‘Knowledge’ (of the world) sullies. The girl who adopts worldly values, who sneers at society or holds its values cheap, finds every back turned and all her influence – and life choices - gone. Such attitudes remained powerfully entrenched in British society, well into the twentieth century.

It was all too easy, in the Edwardian and post Edwardian era, for a woman to become ‘superfluous’. As Ruth Adam writes in A Woman’s Place:[6]

‘On the whole the man’s world which came to an end with the Great War was a pleasant enough one for wives – at least compared with any previous period. But it was a very harsh world indeed in which to be a spinster. Spinsters had to face the fact that they were a nuisance to everybody, because there was no provision for them to be independent of a man’s help, in an economy set up by males for males.’

A woman without a husband could remain a daughter or a niece, or become an aunt – like Anne Elliot,[7] or a poor relation – such as Fanny Price,[8] of a century before. But for many, the reality would have been more akin to Daphne du Maurier’s un-named heroine, who would become the second Mrs de Winter, but whom we first meet as the poorly paid companion of a tyrannical American woman, whose character has been ruined by too much money and too little understanding.[9]

As we look at women whose characters have been determined by the society around them, it is refreshing to meet the occasional (and usually central) character who sets out to buck the system. The woman who, side-lined by spinsterhood, poverty or the bullying management of others seeks her destiny outside the group, comes into print as a breath of fresh air in a claustrophobic world. In some of my favourite books this woman is not the feisty heroine of twenty-first century literature, but instead a quiet, unassuming character who, with almost accidental determination finds herself popped, like a mollusc out of her confining shell, to bask on a sunnier shore.

D E Stevenson’s delightful Miss Buncle[10] repeatedly asserts that she has ‘no imagination’, but her ‘golden boy’ (clearly a figment of an active imagination) transforms the village and the lives therein.  A seemingly innocent and simple soul, she wreaks havoc as her neighbours see themselves drawn ‘warts and all’. Such characters offer a ray of hope and the possibility of a better chance in life for one with the courage to seize it.

Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew[11] accidently tumbles into an entirely different world when she innocently answers an advertisement. Thrust into the Bohemian orbit of Miss LaFosse, she finds herself, for the first time, both visible to her employer and regarded as a person with thoughts and opinions worth hearing. As New York reviewer Priya Jain writes:

Miss Pettigrew, after all, is a woman who finds her true self amidst girl talk and female solidarity. And though she thrills at the romantic hi-jinks that are erupting around her, it's the relationships between the women that drive the narrative. As Miss LaFosse presses her for help with lover number two, Miss Pettigrew transforms. "For the first time for 20 years some one really wanted her for herself alone," Watson writes, "not for her meager (sic) scholarly qualifications. For the first time for 20 years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton."  [12]

Such a scenario might suggest that the remedy to a ‘world run by men’[13] lies with women alone. But Watson does not exclude men from the provision of happiness and the expression of generosity and kindness. Michael’s love for Miss LaFosse is broad enough to offer Miss Pettigrew a way out of poverty, insecurity, and obscurity. Her happiness is bound up in his own desire for happiness.  One will secure the other. If Watson had so wished, the story could have ended there, but the inclusion of Joe in the last paragraph includes a ‘beau’ for Miss Pettigrew. The happiness of the two women is balanced by that of the two men.

In Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout the need to break away from family is explored through the eyes of ‘two widowed matriarchs who embody opposite kinds of mothering’.[14]Aykroyd speaks of this inter-war period as ‘one of upheaval for women’.

To be married,’ she writes, ‘and have children was no longer a woman’s only acceptable destiny’.

But for all her sharp insight into the inequalities, faults and human frailties underlying family life, Crompton nevertheless manages to entertain and amuse her readers. She draws characters with redeeming features – ones with whom the reader can sympathise.

All these catalysts could be thought of as quaint or exaggerated characters, but the whole point of their delineation is to inject simplicity and honesty into a tired and artificial world: the weary world so often portrayed being that of Britain between and around the two world wars. Certainties are gone, and in reaction to this, society has sought to impose a rigid set of petty rules which will keep everyone in their place. Any escape is worth the throw of the dice. Deliciously, in many of the books of the period, the wicked get their just deserts – but not in all.

In Consequences,[15] E M Delafield uses a restricted palette, focusing on a small community and a narrow social class. She sets the book between 1889 and 1908. By this strategy she is able to minutely explore the frustrations and restrictions of her own childhood, and emergence into adult life. Her subjects are girls from whom the full truth is hidden. They are forced to make their choices ‘in the dark’. Hers is a sharper, more incisive pen. Her description of Alex’s disintegration when her beloved Mother Gertrude is about to leave her shows the raft of unreality upon which Alex has based her life choices. Alex believes she is dedicated to God, but is confronted by the truth: she desires only the love of Mother Gertrude.

‘She knew that she had thought herself to be answering a call of God, when she had been hearing only the voice of Mother Gertrude…
Physical pangs of terror shot through her from head to foot as she realized to what she had bound herself, which now presented itself to her overstrung perceptions only in the crudest terms...
…There was nothing, anywhere.
And with that final certainty of negation came a rigidity of despair that no terms of time or space could measure.’

The tragedy of Alex’s choices works its way through to the end of the book. Perhaps the saddest line of all is the very last, spoken to Cedric, by Barbara:

‘…Alex was such a pretty little girl!’

However, women are not alone in this accident of choice.  During the twentieth century racism restricted opportunity for countless people, giving birth to the ongoing struggle for recognition, freedom of action, and equal rights for all, regardless of race, creed or colour. In Dorothy Hughes’ The Expendable Man [16]we are confronted by a set of outcomes dominated by racism. The ‘expendable man’ is one Dr Hugh Densmore. He picks up a hitchhiker named Iris Croom. He is black and the girl is white. When she is found dead, Densmore is accused of her murder, and in the racist culture of Arizona during Kennedy’s presidency, the probability is that Densmore will pay for a crime he did not commit. In 1963 America a black man was of as little account as single women in early 20th century Britain.

Densmore’s plight is triggered by his choice to pick up the solitary white girl – goaded into it by the racist chanting of street thugs. A simple choice, which seems insignificant, comes to assume huge significance affecting the lives of many. This is a recurring theme throughout the books I have selected. In all of them choices are made for all manner of apparently trivial reasons - ranging from a dip in the interest rate[17] to the muddling of two advertisements, [18] and from the accident of geography (bringing disparate families into collision)[19] to the trivialities which drive them apart.
The ‘expendable’ men and ‘superfluous’ women in these books all begin life as innocents, moulded by time and place, society, manners, mores, and accident. Growing and maturing, they are forced to make choices which are sometimes based on partial knowledge – or deliberately contrived ignorance. Sometimes they are coerced into a course of action, other times they may have to choose the lesser of two evils. Some texts examine their plight with great sensitivity and seriousness (as in Consequences), others pick out the ridiculous and take the reader on a roller-coaster of entertainment (as in Miss Pettigrew) only touching on the pathos and the unfair luck-of-the-draw which makes one character privileged and another deprived.

In these texts we see riches versus poverty, black versus white, and truth versus lies. The human condition is seen to be affected both by huge upheavals in world history and by the minutiae of daily life. However, it is foolish to believe that our era has a better, truer grasp of the meaning of freedom of choice than those which went before us. We must acknowledge the delicacy of the pens which deal with the treatment of men and women, creed and colour, and social and educational status with such wit and generosity: those of Crompton, Delafield, Hughes, Stevenson, Watson, and Whipple (not forgetting the insights of Adam in A Woman’s Place).

I write this on a day of autumnal gales and lashing rain, and I consider myself lucky to curl up before a glowing hearth, surrounded by the elegance of my chosen Persephone books; dipping into the wit and wisdom of a time when the central heating didn’t always work, academic study for women was thought unnecessary or unnatural, and girls were schooled only for marriage. The times are different, but the writers are just the kind of people with whom one could enjoy afternoon tea and a debate about the role of choice in the shaping of a life. I can imagine a heated argument about earnestness as opposed to frivolity as the best tool to sculpt the message of a book; and the scones might grow cold as Crompton does battle with Delafield over the matter of servants. This is their delight – they used what power they had to write about what they saw about them. In subtle ways (and thanks to Persephone) their power reaches into the 21st century: the power to make us look askance at our own lives. Have we accepted restricted choices? Are we part of a generation which seeks to restrict the choices of others? Do we, through ignorance or lack of interest, consider our own happiness as more valuable than that of our weaker neighbours?

Our world is much smaller today than when these authors were weaving their stories. We have every possible aid to help us discover the outcomes of actions we take. But a few hours enjoying the incisive wit of these seven writers might sharpen our vision. Hopefully, with a wry smile and genuine feelings of warmth towards our fellow men (and women) we will find ourselves better equipped to make good choices. We may even begin to understand ‘how we got here’ and, more importantly, see more clearly the way that we should go.

[1] Chapter One, Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout (1948) Persephone Book 24
[2] Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance (1953) Persephone Book 3
[3] E.g. Mrs Featherstone Hogg in D E Stevenson: Miss Buncle’s Book (1934)  Persephone Book 81
[4] Henry James: What Maisie Knew (1897)
[5] Henry James: The Awkward Age (1899)
[6] Ruth Adam: ‘The Superfluous Women’ in A Woman’s Place (1975) Persephone Book 20
[7] Jane Austen: Persuasion (1817)  Chapter 7 (little Charles’ fall) ‘It was an afternoon of distress, and Anne had every thing to do at once; the apothecary to send for, the father to have pursued and informed, the mother to support and keep from hysterics, the servants to control, the youngest child to banish, and the poor suffering one to attend and soothe; besides sending, as soon as she recollected it, proper notice to the other house, which brought her an accession rather of frightened, enquiring companions, than of very useful assistants.’
Chapter 12… Captain Wentworth’s: “no one so proper, so capable as Anne.”
[8] Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (1814) Chapter One: "There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris," observed Sir Thomas, "as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up: how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorise in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in our endeavours to choose exactly the right line of conduct."
[9] Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (1938) Chapter Four: (Maxim and the girl who becomes the second Mrs de Winter) “Your friend,” he (Maxim) began, “she is very much older than you. Is she a relation? Have you known her long?” I saw he was puzzled by us.
“She’s not really a friend,” I told him, “she’s an employer. She’s training me to be a thing called a companion, and she pays me ninety pounds a year.”
“I did not know one could buy companionship,” he said; “it sounds a primitive idea. Rather like the Eastern slave market.”

[10] D E Stevenson: Miss Buncle’s Book (1934) Persephone Book 81
[11] Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) Persephone Book 21
[12] Priya Jain (March 05, 2008)
[13] Ruth Adam: Chapter One in A Woman’s Place (1975) Persephone Book 20 ‘At the beginning of the reign of King George V, it was taken for granted that the birth of a daughter must be a disappointment, in any walk of life, because men were in short supply and it was a man’s world.’
[14] Juliet Aykroyd: Preface to Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout (1948) Persephone Book 24
[15] E M Delafield: Consequences (1919) Persephone Book 13
[16] Dorothy B Hughes: The Expendable Man (1963) Persephone Book 68
[17] D E Stevenson: Miss Buncle’s Book (1934) Persephone Book 81
[18] Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) Persephone Book 21

[19] Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout (1948) Persephone Book 24


  1. OVW if this didn't win the prize then I can't imagine what the winning one is like. Your last two paras are especially true and expressed so beautifully. Your second to last para sums up a lot of why I read in general - thanks to authors who share what they see about them, my world ( and perhaps my mind!) is larger. Thank you for sharing this essay Simon. Merenia x

  2. An excellent essay. Was it meant to be anonymous?

  3. Wonderful piece - I can't imagine why this or Simon's didn't win!


  4. Both essays are marvellous - a talented family.


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