Red Pottage, Mary Cholmondeley
I had never heard of Mary Cholmondeley before reading a review of this book last year over at Desperate Reader, which didn't stop me from tracking down a copy. As usual, though, once it arrived it got added to and then lost in the TBR stacks. Now, a year later, I am kicking myself for leaving it on the shelf so long, and wondering which of her other books I can get my hands on next. I loved this book. It was such a temptation to rush through it, to find out what happened next, but I resisted, wanting to savor it rather than gobble.
From the introduction to my Virago edition, I learned that Mary Cholmondeley is considered one of the "New Woman" writers of the late 19th century, who explored the changing roles of women in society. George Eliot was one of her favorite authors and a major influence on her work. Red Pottage, published in 1899, was her fourth novel and her greatest success, selling thousands of copies in both Britain and the United States. I can certainly see why. The first chapters introduce us to Hugh Scarlett, who has tired of his affair with the married Lady Newhaven. On his way to an evening party at her house, he resolves to break with her. Soon after his arrival, he sees a young woman in a pale green gown, not beautiful, but with something of strength and determination and dignity in her face. Hugh instantly decides that this unknown woman must be his wife, though she leaves before he even learns her name. As he himself is leaving, Lord Newhaven takes him into his study for a moment. There he gives Hugh to understand that he knows about the affair. Rather than challenging Hugh to a duel, he offers him a very serious game of drawing straws.
"I am sure we perfectly understand each other. No name need be mentioned. All scandal is avoided. I feel confident you will not hesitate to make me the only reparation one man can make another in the somewhat hackneyed circumstances in which we find ourselves . . . I am sorry the idea is not my own. I read it in a magazine. Though comparatively modern it promises soon to become as customary as the much to be regretted pistols for two and coffee for four. I hold the lighters thus, and you draw. Whoever draws or keeps the short one is pledged to leave this world within four months, or shall we say five, on account of the pheasant shooting? Five be it. Is it agreed? Just so. Will you draw?"
I couldn't help liking Lord Newhaven, even more than Hugh, and wanting to know what those five months would bring, whether the bargain made that night would be kept.
The next day, Hugh goes to dinner at the home of Sybell Loftus, an ambitious hostess. There he meets Rachel again, and though his instant obsession with marrying her has faded, he is still interested and attracted. They find common cause in defending Rachel's friend Hester Gresley, whose novel of London's East End is a critical and popular success. Rachel and Hester's friendship is the central relationship in the story, and it's an interesting one. Both characters are so vividly drawn, and I came to care about them very much. They met as children, when Hester captivated Rachel with marvelous tales and games. Hester lived with her aunt, Lady Susan, who took a dim view of Rachel's wealthy but socially inferior parents, tolerating their daughter only for her niece's sake. Then Rachel's parents died, and her fortune was lost to her father's partner's mismanagement. Determined to be independent and to earn her own way, she ended up living in the East End, eking out a living as a copyist. After years of struggle and poverty, she inherited a vast fortune, reparation from her father's partner, which she is spending on charitable works.
Meanwhile, Hester's gift for stories has grown into a vocation, a compulsion even, to write. Though her first book was a success, her fortunes fell with the death of Lady Susan. Left with only a small income, she decided to make her home with her brother, a vicar with a growing family in a country town. Her brother James Gresley is a spiritual son of Trollope's Mrs Proudie, narrow-minded, self-righteous, and judgemental; his adoring wife will never challenge or change that. He cannot understand his sister, he thinks her writing nothing in comparison with his own great works exposing the errors of Dissenters and other enemies of the True Faith. In his blindness, at one point he attacks his sister's work in an appalling act, one I found so devastating that I put the book aside for a time, unwilling to face its effect on Hester. Fortunately for the Church, Mr Gresley more than meets his match in his Bishop, Dr Keane, wise and loving, who proves a true friend to both Hester and Rachel, and whose episcopal palace becomes their refuge. (His sister, who lives with him but lives for "a perpetual orgy of mothers' meetings and G.F.S. gatherings," thinks them superficial.)
Making Hester and Rachel's the strongest relationship in the story, Mary Cholmondeley uses it to explore women's friendship. She returns to it again and again, writing about it in moving terms:
But nevertheless here and there among its numberless counterfeits a friendship rises up between two women which sustains the life of both, which is still young when life is waning, which man's love and motherhood cannot displace nor death annihilate; a friendship which is not the solitary affection of an empty heart nor the deepest affection of a full one, but which nevertheless lightens the burdens of this world and lays its pure hand upon the next.
Cholmondeley's story moves between Rachel and Hester, Hugh, Lord and Lady Newhaven, Dr Keane, the Gresleys, their neighbors in London and in the country. Rachel and Hugh meet often, their mutual attraction growing into love. But the fatal five months are passing quickly; what will happen on the 29th of November? I thought I knew, but Mary Cholmondeley is a very tricky writer, and her story turned and turned again, leaving me more than once with mouth agape. Even more than her twisty plotting, it was her people that kept me reading on, caught up in their lives, hoping for a happy ending to their stories (and a little retribution for wicked brother James).
As the introduction points out, we should know that James is "an absolute oaf" because he proclaims George Eliot a coarse writer. Even worse, he has no saving grace of humor, despite his ponderous jokes. Mary Chomondeley writes rather scathingly of those who, "conscious of a genius for adding to the hilarity of our sad planet," play silly pranks like putting a woman's hat on a man, or who say "au reservoir" instead of "au revoir." Oh dear, poor Lucia - the clever phrase that sweeps through Riseholme and Tilling is really just outdated Victorian humor!