Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins

Patricia BrentNormally I try to come up with different posts for my Vulpes Libris outings from the ones I use on my own blog, Stuck-in-a-Book, but this little gem of a novel was too fun to keep to myself.  If you do read my blog, this post will repeat a lot of what you’ve already seen – but if you don’t, get ready to hear about a really lovely book!

One of the things I love most about literary discussion online – be it on blogs or email groups or whatever – is that occasionally an unlikely novel will take centre stage.  As I read in a sage review somewhere (I forget where), somebody in the blogosphere always seems to be discovering Barbara Comyns.  Ditto with Shirley Jackson, and similar unexpected enthusiasms have been launched for books like Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters, and (of course) Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I don’t remember quite where I first heard of Patricia Brent, Spinster, but I do know that last year lots of people in my Yahoo group were reading it, and that Thomas compared it to Miss Hargreaves. So it was one of them.  Right, let’s get onto the book itself, shall we?

Although officially I disapprove of lying, I love it when characters lie in books and TV shows – especially when they do it badly, or it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.  It’s such a great device, perhaps because, rather than dealing with an enemy or antagonist, the victim has caused their own chaos – and thus must steer things back onto the right path.  It’s the starting point of Miss Hargreaves, and it is the starting point of Patricia Brent, Spinster.

I had assumed that Patricia Brent would be in her dotage – such are the connotations of ‘spinster’ – but in actual fact she is only in her early 20s.  Thus she is rather outraged when she overhears the older residents of her boarding-house talk pityingly about her being 27 and alone.  As Jenkins writes later in the novel:

A book could be written on the boarding-house mind, I think.  It moves in a vicious circle.  If someone would only break out and give the poor dears something to talk about.

Well, this is precisely what Patricia does.  Without giving it much thought, beyond the triumph of the moment, she announces to the assembled ladies and gents that she is off for dinner with her fiancée.  Her plan is simple – she will take a taxi to a fancy restaurant, eat alone, and return having scored a point.  Of course, she couldn’t have predicted that two of the women would find out where she would be eating, and follow her there…

Unable to admit to the lie, Patricia takes a different step – one which severs any attachment the novel might have had to real life – and plonks herself down at the table of a man eating alone, whispering to him to play along.  Rather than look startled or call the manager (as you or I might do), he is game – and they have rather a fun evening.

Peter Bowen is the man in question, an officer and a gentleman (or something like that), and – would you believe it? – he falls in love with her.  The rest of Patricia Brent, Spinster follows her reluctant realisation that she loves him too, and… well, you can probably guess everything that happens.

Not a moment of it is plausible from beginning to end – and, because it is consistently absurd, it is a total delight.  A likely incident would have ruined the whole thing, just as a moment of pathos deflates a farce.  Nobody seems to speak or behave as anybody outside a novel would, but Jenkins has created a masterpiece, in his own way.

You might not expect to love something of this ilk, but I defy you not to be charmed by it.  Along the way we meet Patricia’s aunt, her oft-stated ‘sole surviving relative’, who is every bit as interfering as you’d hope.  Bowen has a kind, wise, witty sister of the sort which cheerfully cluttered up the Edwardian era; Patricia’s political employer (she is a secretary) has a simple-but-honest father.  Nothing here is too original, but all is wonderful – and the writing is just as fun.  This sort of thing:

Mr. Cordal grunted, which may have meant anything, but in all probability meant nothing.

Oh, I loved it.  It’s a breath of fresh air, and as abundantly silly and heart-warming as you could possibly desire.  There are quite a few secondhand copies available (I got mine, with its bizarre dustjacket, for £1 in Felixstowe) but it’s also free on Kindle.  I’m not the first to cry the joys of Patricia et al, but I am among its most vociferous supporters.

Herbert Jenkins, Patricia Brent, Spinster (Herbert Jenkins Ltd.: London, 1918) 312pp.

4 comments on “Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins

  1. Kate
    March 11, 2014

    I love novels like this, especially if they’re well written; and this sounds a delight.

  2. George Simmers
    March 11, 2014

    I’ve enjoyed a couple of books by Jenkins. ‘John Dene Of Toronto – A Comedy Of Whitehall’ (1920) is a thriller about secret weapons and conspiracies in wartime. It’s very readable, but was published at a time when war stories were not finding a ready market. i can’t help wondering whether it would have seen the light of day had Jenkins not been his own publisher.
    ‘Malcolm Sage, Detective’ (1921) is a book of stories featuring the brilliant deductive mind working in Whitehall in the previous book, and sets him solving peacetime problems. the sort of light reading that whiles away a train journey very nicely.
    In yet another genre, he also produced the cockney humour of the ‘Bindle’ books.
    He was also a clever publisher, with a great eye for what would sell – from the Yorkshire pastoral of Willie Riley’s novels, to the comedy of P. G. Wodehouse. One thing I’ve noticed about his books is that they only rarely have copyright dates or publishing history – so that purchasers would not know that they were not buying a new book. Very canny.

  3. heavenali
    March 11, 2014

    As you know I ordered a copy following your review it sounds brilliant. Heaven knows when I’ll get round to it though.

  4. Jackie
    March 11, 2014

    This sounds like a very enjoyable novel, full of amusement and character sketches. I have a Nook, so I ought to see if it’s free for that format as well. Thanks for introducing me to what sounds like a fun read.

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2014 by in Entries by Simon, Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: humour, Fiction: romance.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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