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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Cholmondeley’

Red Pottage is a late Victorian novel that is satisfyingly many things at once. A novel of what was then termed ‘the New Woman’ while also having something of the sensation novel about it. It is a novel that satirises the smug, complacency of the middle classes and some aspects of the clergy – demonstrating how women needed independence. Here is a story of a close female friendship, romance, adultery, a suicide pact and the search for fulfilment. It zips along at a marvellous pace, becoming hard to put down. There are times when only a really good late Victorian novel will do for full immersive absorption – and this novel ticked so many boxes for me that I was genuinely sad to finish it.

Mary Cholmondeley became almost an overnight celebrity upon the publication of Red Pottage – it was a huge best seller. Her previous novels had met with only quite modest success. She was hugely influenced by the novelist George Eliot – she is also the aunt of the novelist Stella Benson (who I have yet to read).

“Every year I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the powers we have not used, the selfish prudence which will risk nothing, and which, shirking pain, misses happiness as well.”

As the novel opens we meet Hugh Scarlett – a man trapped in an affair with an unhappily married woman. His infatuation with her is over – but her husband Lord Newhaven has discovered their relationship and insists that Hugh enter into a pact with him – they draw lots – he who draws the shortest will be duty bound to die by their own hand within five months. Listening on the other side of the door – Lady Newhaven is desperate to find out who drew the shortest.

Earlier that evening Hugh was introduced to Rachel West – a young woman who everyone knows for her sudden and unexpected inheritance. The daughter of a self-made man who later lost everything, Rachel has not had an easy life. Having lived independently and in quite severe poverty for some years in the East End of London making her living as a typist – Rachel has come into an enormous fortune. She has had her heart broken by a man who was clearly not worthy of her – and now she is a very eligible prospect indeed. Hugh Scarlett finds himself drawn to Rachel with very genuine feelings – but his entanglement with the Newhavens hardly makes him a fitting suitor.

Rachel’s great friend since childhood is Hester Gresley – she had previously lived with her aunt Lady Susan Gresley with whom she enjoyed a life of great sympathy, patronage, and society. However, upon her aunt’s death Hester was obliged to go to live in the country with her clergyman brother and his wife.

“Life had not spoilt Rachel. Lady Susan Gresley had done her best to spoil Hester. The one had lived the unprotected life and showed it in her bearing. The other had lived the sheltered life, and bore its mark upon her pure forehead and youthful face.”

The Rev Mr Gresley is pious and serious clergyman – fond of his sister, he disapproved of the life she lived in London before coming to live with him. Many of the things Hester does or doesn’t do fills him with despair – and Hester’s life is narrowing because of it. Hester is a writer – she has published to some great acclaim a novel about the East End of London. She is now writing her second novel.

Rachel is invited to stay at the country home of the Newhavens – which isn’t far from where Hester is now living. Lady Newhaven is miserable, unable to get in touch with her former lover – she is casting round for a confidante unaware that Rachel has recently got to know Hugh Scarlett quite well. As Rachel’s friendship with Hugh begins to look like something more – it becomes clear that Lady Newhaven is not ready to let him go – is desperate to speak to him, sending him letters which Hugh burns unopened.

Mary Cholmondeley presents us with a marvellous cast of characters; Richard Vernon, a business acquaintance of Lord Newhaven and cousin to Hester and her brother – he is a no nonsense straight talking breath of fresh air recently arrived home from Australia where he made his fortune. Here is another man who recognises in Rachel a woman of strength and intelligence – and with whom he wouldn’t mind throwing in his lot. The kindly, moderate and very sensible bishop who provides something of a foil to Hester’s brother, the socially ambitious Pratt sisters and their brother – and the wonderfully well drawn society wife Sybell Loftus.

“People, like Sybell, believe one can only sympathize with what one has experienced. That is why they are always saying, ‘as a mother,’ or ‘as a wife.’ If that were true the world would have to get on without sympathy, for no two people have the same experience. Only a shallow nature believes that a resemblance in two cups means that they both contain the same wine.”

Hester pours all her energies into finishing her new novel. As her previous novel told a great truth about the East End of London, this novel will seek to tell the truth about the clergy – in a way that many of the clergy will object to. To Hester her book is her child – it is everything to her. Recovering from a bout of illness at the home of her friend the bishop – Hester can little imagine what terrible consequences her absence from home will have on her literary ambitions. It is easy to see in Hester something of Mary Cholmondeley herself who knew first-hand the creative struggle for women writers and the need for independence.

This was such a great read – and yet another novel that should be back in print. Some second-hand copies can be found – although how easily I’m not sure – and for kindle users it is available free.

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