… and another post taken from the original Other Stories…
Before I started reading academic books again for my MA, I had never heard of Mary Cholmondeley. However, her name kept popping up in relation to feminist and women’s writing in the Victorian age, especially concerning her most famous novel Red Pottage. I decided that it sounded like the kind of thing I should be taking a peek at so, with some trouble, I eventually tracked down a POD (print on demand) copy from a teeny tiny publisher in Middlesex called Echo Library.
The story has several strands, as is the way with most Victorian novels, but there are two major ones. Firstly, Hugh Scarlett has been having a caddish affair with Lady Newhaven and believes he’s got away with it. He’s bored with her though, so he decides to end it. Before he can do that, though, he is taken to one side by Lord Newhaven who, we discover, has known about it all along, and is not best pleased. He challenges Scarlett to draw lighters with him, and whoever gets the short one has five months to kill himself. I shant say here who draws the short lighter, but needless to say there’s a lot of intrigue and suspicion flying around as to who it is, not least in the mind of Lady Newhaven who has been listening at the door while this has been going on, but doesn’t hear who pulls the lighter.
The other strand concerns novellist Hester Gresham, who has written a successful novel about the poverty-stricken East End of London, with much of her information coming from her best friend Rachel who had lived in poverty before coming into a massive inheritance. Hester has never married and never had children – her novels are her children – so when the aunt she lives with dies she has to go and live with her brother and his wife and children. The Rev Gresham – the brother – is super-devout and hates Dissenters. He spends much of his time writing over-worthy religious tracts denoucing any Dissenters (whether they are atheists or just Christians of a different denomination) as “worms”. He disapproves of his quiet, intense, city-reared sister, and thinks she is flighty and not godly enough. He especially is frustrated by her not going to the early church services.
The two threads inevitably connect up. Hugh sees Rachel at a party and falls in love with her; the Newhavens have a country house near the Gresham vicarage. But along the way there is death and affairs and lying and novel-burning. It may be a bit of a pot boiler, but it one that actually says a great deal about a woman (Hester) who eschews the classic Victorian ideals of “femininity”. She doesn’t want children because she can only love her writing and her burgeoning career as a writer. She does not write because she needs the money, she writes because it is in her bones, she can’t not write, and those are qualities that were seen as distinctly un-feminine then. Women are meant to stay at home and run a house and a family – any woman that deviated from that is somehow improper.
There are also discussions about marrying for love versus marrying someone because it is appropriate. There is a wonderful and occasionally funny critique of the clergy (note, the clergy is what is attacked here, not religion, which the author clearly embraces – Hester is most certainly a spiritual person, just not in a regimented, organised religion way), and it explores pertinent ideas about women being free to get out of an unhappy marriage without scandal. In short, there a great deal of interesting material here, as well as being a cracking good read. I have no idea why this book isn’t more widely read, so I hereby implore you good people to grab yourselves a copy and settle in for a treat.