by Carola Oman
Publication Date: April 5, 1940
Project: a century of women, furrowed middlebrow
“I have told Rose that there will be a chauffeur for dinner,” she ended, frowning slightly at the cannibalistic sound of her sentence.
Unmarried and nicknamed “Button” by her friends, Mary Morrison is a (very mildly) distressed gentlewoman. She no longer lives in her family home, but remains at the very centre of village life, surrounded by friends including carefree, irresponsible Catha, Lady Rollo, just back from India and setting up lavish housekeeping nearby with her husband and children—socialist Tony, perfect Crispin, and Elizabeth who’s preparing to be presented at Court. Then there’s Marcelle, Mary’s widowed sister-in-law, and her challenging daughter Rosemary, who may soon be planting themselves with her to escape London bombs, Miss Rosanna Masquerier, a historical novelist who might just be a wry self-portrait of the author, and an array of other Sirs and Ladies who rely on Mary’s sympathy and practicality. And perhaps there’s just a hint of romance as well .
This is one of the Furrowed Middlebrow reprints. Furrowed Middlebrow is an imprint of Dean Street Press, which is one of my favorite small publishers. In addition to a lot of vintage mysteries, they publish the Furrowed Middlebrow line, which tends to focus on interwar & WWII British women authors – the same ground that Virago and Persephone tread, although their selections tend to be a bit more in the popular fiction line (i.e., D.E. Stevenson, Molly Clavering, etc) than either of those publishers. This is a particular splinter interest of mine, along with Golden Age Mysteries, so I tend to buy a lot of them.
I read this one during the fall Dewey’s read-a-thon. I had already blacked out my Halloween bingo card, and I decided to focus my reading on British women’s fiction for a while.
This one is set mostly in 1939, in the months immediately prior to war being declared. It’s a very character driven novel where nothing very important happens – the main character, Mary Morrison, lives in an English village, where she is a busy spinster. The amount of free labor that British middle- to upper-middle-class women provided to their communities was quite significant during that time period. Her BFF, Catha Rollins, moves to town with her husband and three adult – or at least trending in the direction of adult hood, and Mary is swept up in their travails as well as dealing her own obligations.
This is right up my alley, so not surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot. Mary is just the kind of character I like – interesting and independent, a sort of a 1930’s version of one of Barbara Pym’s excellent women. I look forward to picking up the sequel, Somewhere in England, which deals more directly with the impact of World War II on Mary and her community.
Interestingly, Carola Oman mostly wrote historical fiction. According to the introduction, she was also besties with Georgette Heyer.