Sunday, September 30, 2018

Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson


 The governess. The spinster. The Aunt Sallies of life and standbys of British serialized humor. Submerged in other people's garments. 

I had really hoped to read two or even three books this past week for the Persephone Readathon, but I'm sorry to say that the events in the news were so upsetting, I could hardly focus on the book that I had chosen -- and I really wish that I had picked a more uplifting book. I'd been putting off Alas, Poor Lady for years -- it was so long and seemed rather depressing. It did take rather longer than I expected, as I normally zip through a Persephone in a couple of days, but I'm very glad to have read it.

Alas, Poor Lady is the story of a Victorian family with seven daughters, ultimately focusing on the youngest, Grace Scrimgeour, born in 1869. Her father, a retired army officer, is forever disappointed that he has no son (who finally arrives two years after Grace); he takes little interest in his daughters other than providing them a perfunctory education and assuming eventually some man or other will take them off his hands. After nine pregnancies in more than 20 years, her mother blithely assumes the same, without preparing her (or her elder sisters) with the means to find a husband or learn to support her self -- it just wasn't done. 

A Honiton Lace Manufactury. Frederick Richard Pickersgill, 1869.

Some of Grace's elder sisters snag husbands and even have sons, but Grace and her unmarried sisters are doomed to spend their lives doing needlework and Good Works appropriate for middle-class ladies. One of the sisters, Mary, suggests higher education or even teaching as a profession; another, Queenie, the nerve to suggest opening a needlework shop. Both of these ideas are immediately rejected as being unsuitable -- what would people think

 Her stillborn love affair, her spinsterhood she might forget if they would let her, the loss of her shop never. It was her real broken romance. 'I could have made a success in business but they wouldn't let me.'
   That would be her story in all the years to come.

Eventually, through bad money management, bad investments, and just bad luck, the unmarried Scrimgeour sisters enter a slow downward spiral to genteel poverty, becoming a burden on relatives and living from hand to mouth.  I'm always interested in the lives of the Victorian, but this book was a tough read in parts, with, as always, women having few choices. The eldest sister, Gertrude, has a rude awakening from her own marriage and childbirth (nearly the same time as Grace's birth); but at least she has financial security. It's a very well written book, but I did have to stop several times because I was so distressed at the mistakes and injustices that these spinster sisters faced. Grace's multiple attempts to catch a husband were especially distressing. 

Author Rachel Ferguson
This book reminded me a bit of Pride and Prejudice, just from the aspect of getting so many daughters married off. (Imagine if Bingley hadn't rented out Netherfield Hall -- would Jane have been forced to marry Mr. Collins? Ew.) Mrs. Bennet is normally the object of ridicule, but if you think about it, Mr. Bennet hasn't done diddly squat to find his girls suitable husbands, and hasn't put any money aside for dowries. He hides in his study and never even thinks about their education, or the suitability of having all five girls out in society at once. It was more difficult for the older girls to find husbands after several seasons -- and if their sisters came out, they would be even more competition. How awful would it be to have season after season and remain unmarried, then see your younger sisters married off before you? At least one of Bennet parents cared about what would happen to them. The Scrimgeour parents basically stick their heads in the sand and just assume everything will take care of itself eventually. And the ending, thankfully, wasn't as depressing as I expected. 

Endpapers from the Persephone edition of Alas, Poor Lady, a detail from an early 20th century tapestry.
The Scrimgeour sisters spent a lot of time doing needlework.
Alas, Poor Lady is the only Persephone by Ferguson; however, the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press has reprinted three more of her novels: Evenfeld; A Harp in Lowdnes Square; and A Footman for the Peacock, which is the only Furrowed Middlebrow left on my TBR shelves. Bloggers, have you read any of these? Which do you recommend? And did you enjoy the Persephone Readathon? Thanks again to Jessie from Dwell in Possibility for hosting!

9 comments:

  1. Alas Poor Lady sounds rather interesting. The Victorian era was hard times for unmarried women. I enjoy Anthony Trollope's novels which cover this and other issues of the times.

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    1. I'm a big fan of Trollope! Of course he normally seems to focus on married couples. He is by far my favorite Victorian writer.

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  2. When I first started reading this post, I thought of P&P, and you did too! It does sound like a bit of a slog.

    It's been a tough week.

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    1. It's a good story but just tough to read because their situation could have so easily been avoided if anybody had actually thought ahead. The times were just so sexist, it was so frustrating. I'm sure if I'd lived in Victorian times I would have died in childbirth or been a spinster governess living in genteel poverty.

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    2. I’ve often said that I would have been committed to an asylum, but I do hope that I would’ve been more resilient and subversive and an agent of change.

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  3. I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it, although it's certainly not the most uplifting of reads! It was so frustrating to see how limited the sisters' options were - especially when they were looking for work and nobody would even give them a chance. I haven't read any other Rachel Ferguson books yet, but do have a copy of A Footman for the Peacock.

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    1. I really enjoyed Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. It's a quirky little read, quite different.

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  4. Nice review :) It's definitely the least bizarre Ferguson I've read, and I did really like it. I read Tory Heaven for the readathon, but didn't manage to review it...

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  5. Excellent review and thanks for introducing us, certainly me, to Persephone Books. I do plan to check out Alas Poor Lady. Interesting comparison to Pride and Prejudice, a masterpiece, but as you say it's also true that Austen did not write about unmarried women that stayed unmarried and what their lives were like. She touched on it in Persuasion but in Austen's books there is always a Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth waiting at the end.

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