20 May 2022

The Gentlewomen by Laura Talbot

I'm whipping the dust sheet, so to speak, off my blog.  Early last autumn the realization that being tempted by interesting books being written about on blogs  was pulling me away from books already on my shelves.  It is absolutely true that you can have too much of a good thing so I stopped reading blogs on a daily basis.  Then the cooler temperatures reignited an interest in honing my basic sock knitting skills.  Rather than settling for socks that fit well enough, a customized fit was the goal and learning how to knit a short row heel has been so rewarding because, for me, it's a better fit.  But I've also really missed the blogging community and sharing a good read.

Four years ago I had a copy of The Gentlewomen in my hands at a secondhand shop but knowing several Virago titles were still unread at home, I left it behind.  Later that day, curiousity made me look up reviews - a big mistake.  There were glowing comments and, equally frustrating, I read that Laura Talbot was once married to Patrick Hamilton, a writer who wrote scenes of wartime London so vividly the reader feels as though they're in the room.  A full-blown case of FOMO was brewing. 

Passive searching in the hope of stumbling across another copy wasn't working, so I turned to AbeBooks.  Thankfully, The Gentlewomen turned out to be well worth the effort.....    

   "Miss Bolby, I see, or rather, I hardly see, out here it is so dark.  After India you must find these damp fogs rather trying, Miss Bolby.  This peculiar white intensity is rather special to the Midlands, though during the Blitz is was singularly absent - you can hardly have experience enough of it to have become accustomed to it.  But I see you are in a hurry, and so, as a matter of fact, am I, and as we have already gone through our farewells I shall bid you, once again, my dear Miss Bolby, au revoir, but not goodbye."  He shot down the stairs, bushing past Elsie.  He did not pause to offer her any help with the bags, he was in too much of a hurry; but it flashed through his mind that Miss Bolby might at least have carried one of her own bags.

A boarding house, wartime London and fog so thick it catches in the throats of those housed within.  We're off to a brilliant start.

Miss Bolby is in her late fifties and recently employed by Lord and Lady Rushford as governess to their children.  Barby and Louisa are Lady Rushford's daughters from her first marriage, Jessy and Ruth are her stepdaughters and Bella is the daughter Lord and Lady Rushford have had together.  Their grand home features a stretching lawn and a much thumbed copy of Peerage.  Doing their bit for England during the war, the family has taken on a few land girls and two Italian prisoners of war, Otello and Nino.  Mrs Williams cooks for the family, old Benn is the butler, Reenie and Elsie help out as required.

Miss Bolby is a keen stickler when it comes to the rules of society, so much so, she soon alienates those around her with her pedantic ways and airs.  When Miss Bolby learns that Lady Rushford has hired a new secretary she can not resist asking a burning question....

   "Well, thank you very much for letting me know." At the door Miss Bolby paused: "Forgive me for asking such a question, Lady Rushford, but is Miss Pickford a gentlewoman?".  Elizabeth, too, paused.  "I understand so, Miss Bolby.  Her father was a vicar of somewhere - Stonechurch."  

And then comes the reply that leaves no room for doubt about Miss Bolby's character.....

   "I always think it helpful to know from what milieu people come, especially in these days when one so frequently finds the unexpected."

Never slow to let those around her know that her sister married into the upper classes while in India, she seethes with anger and embarrassment when relatives of the Rushfords delve into the six degrees of separation to reveal a minor scandal.  And when the new secretary requests a different bedroom and is offered one that King Edward VII had slept in, Miss Bolby swiftly offers to take the 'King Edward' room as part of a convoluted swap.  That Miss Pickford should have one up on Miss Bolby must not be allowed.  In short, this is humour crossed with the unflattering aspect of envy. 

The Gentlewomen is filled with situations where the class divide is highlighted, such as the riveting topic of whether milk is to be added to the cup before or after tea is poured.  With a snide grin, Miss Bolby remembers seeing Lady Alice pour the milk last.  And there are other transgressions concerning the family, carefully mentioned in private, involving previous lovers and affiliation with suffragettes.

At every opportunity, Miss Bolby tries to gain a further foothold into the realm of the Rushhold family, unfortunately the only person being fooled is herself.  At first, her snobbishness is entertaining in the same way that Hyacinth Bucket is, but a situation involving her missing bracelets reveals a frightening psychological aspect of Miss Bolby's character.

A brilliant read that I'm adding to my list of favourites!

Ann by Prudence Heward (1942)

6 comments:

  1. Oh, I hadn't realised she was married to Patrick Hamilton, but that makes sense! Hope you're back properly, I would miss the blogging community too much if I left, although those tempting books on people's blogs are a wicked thing, of course! I see I read this 12 years ago, when the cat on the cover looked like the cat I had then! https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/laura-talbot-the-gentlewomen-virago/

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    1. Morning, LyzzyBee...cover art can be irresistible at the best of times, nevermind when your dear pet appears right there before you! There's a weird vibe to the painting but it absolutely feels right once you've read the book. Off to read your thoughts on it....

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  2. Thank you! for still inspiring my reading. I'm not sure how long this book has been (unread) on my bookshelf -- it's the product of a now-closed book warehouse that had an entire bookshelf of green Viragos in its used book annex. I have others that I haven't read, but will turn to this one first!

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    1. Oh Audrey, you have to pull it from your shelves! And an entire bookshelf of green Viragos at a book warehouse would make my pupils dilate...that must have been so much fun to browse. I don't stumble across them as often as I used to but I always hope.

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  3. Oh, good to see you back again. :^)

    I suspect I would get fed up with Miss Bolby after about 20 minutes. In real life, that is. Maybe longer on the page. And--oh dear--WHAT is she doing to the children's minds?

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    1. Morning, Susan! Isn't May a busy month in the garden? Four and a half cubic yards of mulch are being delivered tomorrow so our goal was to have everything planted, moved, and weeded....it's exhausting but rewarding, too.
      As for Miss Bolby, I couldn't agree more! She's also one of those well-drawn characters I'll never forget, which is a tribute to Talbot's writing skills. Wish she had written more....

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