Posts Tagged ‘Winifred Boggs’

With thanks to the British Library for the review copy, and for inviting me to be part of their blog tour.

The British Library have recently published some new titles to their already brilliant list – and I was delighted to receive this one to review for the blog tour. Winifred Boggs was a totally new name to me, and apparently little is now known about her, other than she published around a dozen novels under her own name and pseudonyms. Sally on the Rocks first published in 1915 is set during that same year, still quite early into World War One.

There are some pretty serious themes in this novel, though the novel is never heavy, nor does the author labour her point in any way. In fact, the premise might make Sally on the Rocks sound like a fizzing, early twentieth century romance, it is far more than that, and I am delighted that I have persuaded my book group to read it in December.

In this novel Winifred Boggs highlights beautifully the inequalities between men and women in the early years of the twentieth century. While a man may be permitted, or at least forgiven a youthful indiscretion, the same rules did not apply to women. A woman’s life could be utterly ruined by even the merest hint of a sexual relationship before marriage. Set at a time when some men were already returning, broken, and traumatised from the trenches, and others were being hailed heroes merely for wearing a uniform – this is definitely a novel that has a lot to say about England during WW1.

As the novel opens we are introduced to Miss Maggie, a truly loathsome character who is capable of destroying anyone with her sly, knowing gossip, and habit of wheedling out the most hidden of little secrets. Miss Maggie wields her power over the very English village of Little Crampton.

“The sooner you discovered that Miss Maggie was neither to be defied nor ignored, but appeased, the better. Also that it would save time and trouble to tell her your own version of the worst. No matter how small the skeleton she pounced upon, the lady could make its bones rattle so loudly that you would be deafened yourself.”

She very knowingly writes a letter to Sally Lunton in Paris, Sally had previously lived in Little Crampton with her guardian the Rev Adam Lovelady. Only for the past six years, Sally has been living a rather more Bohemian existence in Europe – but the war has rather put a stop to all that. Miss Maggie tells Sally about a new resident of Little Crampton, A Mr Bingley; bank manager and bachelor – with a very healthy bank balance. Miss Maggie knows exactly what she is doing, because at thirty one the one thing Sally really needs now is a husband, there were virtually no other options open to women of her class at the time. Only, Miss Maggie knows there is another woman in the running to be Mrs Alfred Bingley. A youngish widow: Mrs Dalton, who has a dear little girl has already caught Mr Bingley’s eye. Miss Maggie hopes that she will be able to sit back and watch the drama of a little love triangle unfold. That’s not to say that Mr Bingley is a particularly attractive proposition, he’s not. A pompous, Anglican lay reader, over forty who is resentful of the attention all the young soldiers are getting, but has no intention of lying about his age to enlist himself. However absurd it might seem to us today, a woman without independent means, had to be practical. A husband with money meant a woman had some sort of life of her own, a home, and a position in society.

So, Sally arrives back in Little Crampton, settling back at home with her guardian Rev Adam Lovelady, a gentle, kindly man, still grieving the loss of his wife and child some years earlier. Sally knows what she must do, and she sets about the work of getting Mr Bingley to marry her. Though there is no rivalry between Sally and Mrs Dalton after all, they recognise in one another the need the other has and wish each other well – and may the best woman win! It’s a lovely bit of female, solidarity and understanding.

“They knew it was going to be a struggle to the death, and yet they were attracted instantly, and wished it might have been friendship. How delightful to have laughed together over the situation, and that absurdity, Mr Alfred Bingley.”

Despite her best efforts to keep her mind on the job, so to speak, Sally can’t help but be distracted. Firstly, she meets a handsome soldier, returned from the war, he is tortured by his experiences and, haunted by a mistake he made. When Sally first meets him he is threatening to shoot himself.

“The stranger looked at her and found her uncomely and very much in the way. What in opportune things women were! Desperate as he had been, it had taken a little nerving up to set out thus upon the Great Adventure, but he had nerved himself up, and for this. All would have been over now, restfully over, if it had not been for this interfering woman with the long, grim mouth. Damn her! The crimson of the sky blazed into his eyes; it made him think of blood and terrible things. He would ever have ceased to think by now, save for this girl. Damn her! Damn her!”

Sally takes away his gun, finds him some temporary employment and lodging – and despite his initial surly ingratitude involves herself in his story, wanting to help him recover from his ordeal. The second distraction comes in the form of a face from her Bohemian past. Sally’s secret has followed her home from Europe, and should it become known any idea of a sensible marriage to Mr Bingley will be off the cards. Miss Maggie is a veritable blood hound when it comes to secrets – and will go to the most extraordinary lengths to find out the worst – after which she makes sure everyone else knows about it. Sally has good reason to be concerned.

Sally on the Rocks is more than anything a compelling read, its themes make it for me particularly interesting, and Sally is a fabulous heroine. A woman a little outside of her time, perhaps. I can’t wait to talk about this with my book group in December.

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