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.
Until I did an MA in Victorian Studies a few years ago, I had never heard of Mary Cholmondeley. Then, when looking into late 19th century writers who dealt with feminism and/or women’s inequality, this name kept popping up, along with that of her best known novel Red Pottage. It sounded like something I should be taking a look at, so I tracked down a secondhand copy of the Virago edition.
The story has several strands, as is the way with most Victorian novels, but there are two major ones. Firstly, Hugh Scarlett has been having a caddish affair with Lady Newhaven and believes he’s got away with it. He’s bored with her, though, and he decides to end it. But before he can do it, he is taken to one side by Lord Newhaven who, we discover, has known about the affair all along, and is – understandably – not best pleased. He challenges Scarlett to draw lighters with him, and whoever gets the short one has five months to kill himself. I shant say here who draws the short lighter, but needless to say there’s a lot of intrigue and suspicion flying around as to who it is, not least in the mind of Lady Newhaven who has been listening at the door while this has been going on, but doesn’t hear who pulls the unlucky lighter.
The novel’s other strand concerns Hester Gresham, who has written a successful novel about the poverty-stricken East End of London, much of her information having come from her best friend Rachel. Rachel had lived in poverty before coming into a massive inheritance. Hester, meanwhile, has never married and never had children – her novels are her children – so when the aunt she lives with dies she has to go and live with her brother and his family. The Rev Gresham – the brother – is super-devout and spends much of his time writing excruciatingly worthy religious tracts denouncing Dissenters (whether they are atheists or just Christians of a different denomination) as “worms”. He disapproves of his quiet, intense, city-reared sister, and thinks she is flighty and not nearly godly enough. He is particularly frustrated by her non-attendance at early morning church services.
The two threads inevitably connect up. Hugh sees Rachel at a party and falls in love with her; the Newhavens have a country house near the Gresham vicarage. But along the way there is death and affairs and lying and novel-burning. It may be a bit of a pot boiler, but it one that actually says a great deal about a woman (Hester) who eschews the classic Victorian ideals of “femininity”. She doesn’t want children because she can only love her writing and her burgeoning career as a writer. She does not write because she needs the money (which was just about acceptable to Victorian society), she writes because it is in her bones, she can’t not write, and those are qualities that tended to be seen as distinctly un-feminine. Women are meant to stay at home and run a house and a family – any woman that deviated from that is simply improper.
There are also discussions about marrying for love versus marrying someone “appropriately”. There is a wonderful and occasionally funny critique of the clergy (note, the clergy is what is attacked here, not religion, which the author clearly embraces – Hester is most certainly a spiritual person, just not in a regimented, organised religion way), and it explores pertinent ideas about women being free to get out of an unhappy marriage without scandal. Red Pottage may not now be remembered as well as some of its contemporaries, but it’s worth reading if the plight of women in the 19th century is your thing.
NB. This is a revised and edited version of a blog post that originally appeared on an old blog of mine several years ago. That blog no longer exists, and having found this post floating around my computer, I wanted to preserve it. It’s also reminded me that I really want to re-read Red Pottage…
My edition of Red Pottage is a Virago from the 1980s, and the novel is now out of print. However, various secondhand and electronic copies are available online.