Posts Tagged ‘F M Mayor’

the third miss symons

The Third Miss Symons was the first novel published by Flora MacDonald Mayor, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman and professor of classics. It had been preceded by a collection of short stories in 1901, and two more novels and some ghost stories came later. I read F M Mayor’s 1924 novel The Rector’s Daughter in 2015 – it’s a beautiful, poignant novel, though a sad one. It was through the introduction of that novel, that I got the sense that Flora Mayor was more than the quiet, Victorian, clergyman’s daughter we might envisage from her novels – which all do seem to run along rather similar lines. Having read history at Cambridge Flora later became an actress, before eventually turning to writing.

The Third Miss Symons – for me at least, was rather depressing. The Rector’s Daughter was merely sad, it was also compelling and quite brilliant. I was relieved that this was such a short novel, I started it late one evening and finished it the following morning. It offers us a rather bleak and probably not unrealistic portrait of the life of a woman whose destiny it is to never fully connect with anyone, and to remain without a recognisable role or purpose. There is a pall of deep unhappiness that exudes through the novel, I felt the mood and the atmosphere of the novel briefly affected my own mood. No doubt it is testament to the skill of Flora Mayor as a writer that she manages to produce this atmosphere of wasted years so effectively.

Henrietta Symons (generally called Etta) is the third daughter in a large Victorian family, she is a misfit in the middle of the family. An argumentative, cross little girl she grows up to be a querulous woman, without any natural charm or attractions. Etta irritates her mother and sisters, there is little in the way of comfort or softness about her life, while her elder sisters are the pretty, conventionally good Victorian daughters Etta continues a round peg in a square hole. For several years Etta dedicates herself to her younger sister – the fourth daughter born when Etta was eight, Evelyn becomes the focus of all the love Etta is desperate for. While Evelyn is a baby, Etta is allowed to help, and in time the little girl does develop a strong affection for her older sister her ‘little mummie.’ This great capacity for love that Etta, has really should be her saving grace, only it isn’t. Misunderstood by the adults around her, they immediately assume her valiant attempt to replace Evelyn’s dead canary to be nothing more than simple naughtiness.

Unexpectedly, perhaps Etta nearly gets married. Mr Dockerell is not exactly a Prince Charming but he seems to like Etta, and Etta enjoys his good opinion, for a short time.

“And perhaps she loved him all the more because he was not soaring high above her, like all her previous divinities, but walking side by side with her. Yes, she loved him; by the time he had asked her for the third dance she loved him.”

One of Etta’s sister’s returns home and in a bit of spectacularly malevolent spite deliberately turns Mr Dockerell’s head – because she can. Etta’s chance of marriage and a family of her own, is over, and her sister Louie marries somebody else soon after. Etta never really manages to get over her bitterness toward Louie – and in a sense this disappointment blights her life. While Mayor allows us to feel some sympathy for Etta, just like the members of Etta’s own family, we are unable to really like her – or fully engage with her. Etta is one of those difficult people, who without trying, put our backs up, who never seem to fit.

As Etta’s brothers and sisters marry, leave home and start their own families, Etta’s life is further narrowed. As an unmarried daughter at home in a house of servants, her life lacks purpose, and to add insult to injury she is viewed by others as being of little worth too.
As she ages Etta learns little – she never learns how to acquire friends, she has money at her disposal which in middle age she uses to study and travel – yet nothing seems to bring her any kind of fulfilment. In his preface to this edition John Masefield says…

“In a land like England, where there is great wealth, little education and little general thought, people like Miss Mayor’s heroine are common; we have all met not one or two but dozens of her; we know her emptiness, her tenacity, her futility, savagery and want of light; all circles contain some examples of her, all people some of her shortcomings; and judgement of her, even the isolation of her in portraiture, is dangerous, since the world does not consist of her and life needs her. In life as in art those who condemn are those who do not understand; and it is always a sign of a writer’s power, that he or she keeps from direct praise or blame of imagined character.”

Mayor understands Etta completely, the sad, uselessness of Etta’s life – so much of it brought about by her own personality.

This is a novel (novella really, I suppose) that I spent a very short amount of time with, but it felt longer. I think The Rector’s Daughter is almost certainly Flora Mayor’s masterpiece – and I very much want to read The Squire’s Daughter (1929) should I ever come across a copy.

F M MAyor

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One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)


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