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Alas, Poor Lady (1937)

por Rachel Ferguson

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I decided to read this book after rereading The Brontës Went to Woolworths, as it is the only other one of Rachel Ferguson's books to have received a modern reprinting. The back flap of my Persephone Books edition says, "her second [novel], The Brontes went to Woolworths (1931), is her best-known; but the most interesting is Alas, Poor Lady (1937), which was 'fuelled by her mordant social observation' (ODNB)." I disagree. The Brontës Went to Woolworths was delightfully inventive and engrossing; Alas, Poor Lady is a bit of a slog. The novel reminds me of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks or the like, those early-twentieth-century novels about the decline of a middle-class family. It's more limited in scope, however, covering just a single generation from birth to death-- a generation entirely of women (bar one son, who dies young), who find themselves trained into uselessness by the social conventions of their time, but largely unable to marry. I wanted to like it, and it had its moments, but it just never grabbed me on the whole, maybe because there were so many daughters, and I found it difficult to distinguish them from one another. Maybe also because I've read enough proto-feminist Victorian and Edwardian novels with similar takes that much of Ferguson's social critique was old hat. The first fifty pages, where we get insight into the basic setup of the family, and the last fifty pages or so, chronicling one of the daughters' time spent governessing, were the best parts. The intervening 350-ish pages got fairly monotonous. Disappointing, given how much I liked The Brontës.
  Stevil2001 | Jul 27, 2018 |
This novel follows the fate of Victorian-era gentlewomen sisters, the Scrimgeours, who, unable to snag husbands, are left to very sorry fates. After the death of their monied father, their spendthrift, flighty mother dispenses with the money that by rights should be preserved for them--giving large endowments to a grandson-in-law (who reminds her of her own indulged son, a casualty of World War I) and to various charities. One daughter, Aggie, though not Catholic, retreats to convent life; another, Grace, becomes an inept governess. The sisters who did marry resent making any support payments to Grace, and to the two other unmarried sisters: Mary and Queenie. In the end, Grace ends up relying on a charity for impoverished gentlefolk.
Though an interesting and thought-provoking read, the book presents a number of challenges. First of all, much of the idiom is quite dated, and Ferguson writes fairly consistently convoluted, almost incomprehensible prose. This is not one of Persephone's easy middlebrow pleasure reads. It requires a certain amount of reading grit for one to persist. Additionally, the book might have benefited from a more narrow focus on one or two sisters. I was sorry, for example, not to have spent more time in the company of Mary, the blue-stocking sister, who struck me as the most interesting of all. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Dec 3, 2014 |
At first, this seems the novel about a lot of sisters the heroine of "The Brontes went to Woolworths", Ferguson's best and best-known novel moaned about in the first sentence. It does lacks the madcap, deranged spirit of the previous novel, but Ferguson's intentions here are wholly different: this a rather angry look at the Victorian world and values and the strictures it put on women, particularly single women. ( )
  MariaAlhambra | Aug 28, 2011 |
Born in 1870, Grace Scrimgeour is the youngest daughter in a large, not-wealthy Victorian family. In an age and society where women were defined by their marital status, the Scrimgeours fail to make any provision for marriage for their younger daughters—Grace, Queenie, and Mary. One of the sisters becomes a nun; the others marry; but the focus is on the spinsters who remain at home with their mother, a selfish woman who fritters away money in their large house in Kensington.

The book chronicles Grace’s life from birth, through her abortive attempts to find a husband because she’s not attractive enough, through the family’s poverty and Grace’s attempts to earn money as a governess, work that she’s completely unsuited for. It’s a desperately sad novel about what happened to unmarried women—the book opens with Grace’s end in the 1930s, living in distressed circumstances and having to depend on the charity of others. On one hand, the reader feels sorry for Grace and her circumstances; on the other, Grace does nothing to alleviate them.

I read this novel at a time when my own success or lack thereof in the dating department isn’t optimal; so maybe it wasn’t the best book for my present state of mind. It’s a very sad book about the differences between men and women in Victorian England; how women spend their lives waiting, while men go out and actually live their lives. Because the novel covers such a large chunk of time, the story jumps around at times and seems sketchy in places. Nonetheless, I thought that this was a stunning read. It’s interesting to reflect on what would have happened to women like me (the “superfluous women” that Ruth Adam described so well in A Woman’s Place) a hundred years ago. ( )
3 vote Kasthu | May 2, 2011 |
Alas, Poor Lady tells the story of Grace Scrimgeour, from her birth in 1870, the seventh daughter of an upper middle class Victorian family in Kensington, to her death in 1936, a spinster relying on the favour of The Distressed Gentlefolks' Protective Association for her home and income. It is a depressing polemic on the plight of the single woman without means, and Ferguson barely conceals her disdain for the 19th century trend for large and unwieldy families which often produced a surfeit of girls (and the pre-feminist society which encouraged it). With the Boer and then the First World War devastating the population of marriagable bachelors, and the post war economic crisis shattering the once reliable income from stocks and shares, Grace is just one of thousands of unmarried, ill-educated, but well brought up women who descended into poverty as the prosperous Empire lost its finances and its menfolk.

It is desperately sad, but the quality of the writing lifts it above the political manifesto it might have been. The extended Scrimgeour family and its retinue are characterised beautifully, and the members of the gloriously warm hearted Wrenne family who bring a flicker of happiness into Grace's otherwise lonely and unfulfilled life are a delight. The reader bristles with indignation at the patriarch who thinks no further ahead than a longing for a son and heir, and the matriarch who is more concerned what the servants might say than her family's impending penury. She weeps with Grace when she realises that she is "a failure if you didn’t have a baby, but a disgrace if you wanted one, and said so’". She swallows the lump in her throat when bookish Mary cuts out an article about the ladies' college at Cambridge, knowing that she is too old, and her family too conservative, for her ever to go.

Ferguson's book deserves a place on the shelf with "The Women's Room" and "The Golden Notebook" - it reminds us of how far we've come, and how grateful we ought to be for emancipation, the welfare state, contraception, and women's liberation. It also takes a on greater poignancy during this current financial crisis; the worry about balancing income and expenditure is universal, no matter the century. A powerful and emotive book. ( )
2 vote Rache | Apr 13, 2009 |
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