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Hagar of Homerton by Alice Dudeney

C Arthur Pearson, 1898

I first came across Alice Dudeney whilst working with Damian Collins on his biography of Sir Philip Sassoon five years ago. The author of 50 novels published between 1897 and 1937, Alice was a friend and frequent house guest of Sir Philip, and clearly very much at home with the literarti of the day. She was apparently compared with Thomas Hardy for her portrayal of regional life in Sussex and called "one of the most powerful writers of fiction among modern English women" by Putnam’s Magazine. I was therefore surprised that I had never heard of her – and even more surprised to find that all of her novels are now out of print. That certainly did not happen to Thomas Hardy.

Enter the British Library’s print-on-demand Historical Print Collections. I chose Alice’s second novel, Hagar of Homerton, published in 1898. This one is set in London, where Alice lived during the early years of her marriage, working (I imagine very unusually for a married woman at the time) for the publishing house Cassell & Co. The story oscillates between Laura Swithybark, a bored, widowed heiress with a house on Regent’s Park, and Hagar, a possibly illegitimate girl who grew up with her aunt and uncle in an upwardly mobile suburban street in Homerton. When Hagar is falsely (we think) accused of theft by her West End employer, Laura reads of her case in the papers and, having no children of her own, decides that she wants to adopt Hagar as her daughter, and make her into a lady. In short, make a project of her. It’s clear, however, that Hagar - although always open to a new adventure - doesn’t feel that she needs “saving” and would rather flirt with her cousin Bill on her Sunday visits back to Homerton than make a what her new guardian considers to be a superior match.

The Thomas Hardy parallel is probably better made with some of Alice’s later novels, which I understand are mostly set in Sussex, but what is common to both authors is an all-seeing narrator, gentle irony and acute observations of human nature which transcend time. Hagar is more of a comedy of manners than anything of Hardy’s, at times laugh-out-loud funny. Hagar’s family back in Homerton are straight out of Keeping Up Appearances, much more obsessed with the latest mod cons and what they deem to be good manners than the well-to-do Laura Swithybark. This is perceptive observation of the British class system (there’s a great reference to the “extravagant Toryism of the lower middle classes”) which has not lost its meaning.

It’s the standing the test of time which most struck me about Dudeney’s writing. The two main characters first meet in a trendy vegetarian restaurant in Soho (both from different backgrounds, and both women out on their own); characters indulge in retail therapy on Oxford Street then treat themselves to tea and cake; Hagar visits an all-night coffee stall in East London in the early hours of the morning after walking all night; characters commute to work on the (omni)bus; Laura’s single friend without an inheritance lives in a flat in a house conversion; the landlady’s husband works for a publisher and is a socialist. We think we’re a world away from the Victorians, but in terms of London in all its cosmopolitan complexity, I wonder how much has really changed.

A more subtle parallel with today is that the three main characters in Hagar (Laura, Hagar and Laura’s slightly tragic friend Loanna) are all single women. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to make comparisons with the genre of metropolitan women looking for love whilst retaining their independence spawned by Sex & the City in the 1990s. In this sense, Hagar is genre-busting. Aside from the unattributable comparison with Thomas Hardy, I’ve not found any other reviews so it’s difficult to say how contemporaries would have thought of the characters, but Dudeney certainly has women’s independence on her mind. All three characters express, albeit subtly, thoughts along the lines of “if only women could live without men.” The novel takes a dark turn towards the end, involving Loanna’s dashed hopes of breaking out of “old maid” status, and Dudeney clearly has strong thoughts on the topic: “the old maid who imagined a proposal when none was intended was an unfailing resource of the comic papers.” Beneath the social comedy, there’s a distinct feeling that the author feels frustrated by convention: she writes at one point of “that creed which takes the Bible literally and believes that convention is morality.”

In summary, this was one of the most enjoyable and relatable novels which I’ve read for a while, despite its being written more than 120 years ago. Assuming that Dudeney’s other 49 works are similar, this begs the question as to why an oeuvre which stands the test of time so well is out of print. One for Virago Modern Classics to check out.

I’ll be seeking out more of Alice Dudeney’s work and recommend that you do too, and spread the word. Meanwhile, you can follow her on Twitter here. She followed me back, at any rate.

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