British Library Women Writers, 2020 (first published 1931)
I’m always interested in examinations of women living unconventional lives, particularly in times when they were expected to conform to societal pressure, and so was intrigued to know how 33-year-old Jennifer made the most of the freedom afforded to her when her widowed father remarried, and with £100 a year left to her by her late mother.
The novel is contemporary to its date of publication – 1931 – a period which saw many women left unmarried in the aftermath of the First World War; but simultaneously a period in which society still continued to frown on women who forged a career for themselves.
I loved it. The tight cast of characters is delightful – it would work well as a play – and, as well as exploring serious issues, the novel is a neatly plotted comedy of errors, which I hadn’t been expecting.
It left me thinking ….
How expectations of how women can lead their lives have evolved in the last hundred years. Both Jennifer, the protagonist, and Alice, the antagonist, are educated, talented women – and yet the idea of them pursuing their own living is out of the question. As unmarried women, they are simply “on the shelf”.
But it’s not quite as simple as that: all three male characters are also desperately lonely. Ostensibly, at least in the case of two of them, their stated motivation is to marry a woman who will “look after” them, but it’s not difficult to read between the lines and see that, despite outward appearances, they are deeply unhappy. This touch widens the remit of the story.
Above all, it’s striking that the Shakespearian-comedic happy-ever-after ending, with the characters neatly married off to each other, would never happen in a contemporary novel. Ultimately, the female characters don’t succeed in defying expectations or “finding” themselves, which is disappointing to a modern reader (cf A Notable Woman and Moon Tiger, both of which explore this theme more thoroughly). But the book does leave the reader instead with a meditation on loneliness and the nature of companionship – which is as valid an argument as any.