The pleasure of losing oneself in 450+ pages between the grey covers of a Persephone book on a rainy day cannot be understated. This overly detailed tale of the transition out of Victorian life into the modern world of the 1930s follows the birth of Grace in 1870, the eighth daughter of the Scrimgeours. Luckily for Captain Scrimgeour, a son finally arrives after Grace, and all his funds and energy go toward raising that heir as his daughters are variously married off or become spinsters huddled around his hearth (or escape to a nunnery, as one does). Gertrude, his oldest daughter, has her first child as her mother gives birth to Grace, making Grace an awkward “Aunt” at dances she goes to with her niece as soon as she’s of age. Gertie is the one strong woman throughout this story that you don’t feel sorry for (Mary wavers between strength and the desire not to rock the boat and head back to her books).
The spinsters lumber on through life, their mother turning spendthrift after the father dies, almost willfully mismanaging their money so that the three unmarrieds end up penniless when she finally kicks it. The other sisters do their best to support the three (Queenie, Mary, and Grace), but eventually they have to give up as well. Mary dies while Grace works as a governess and then bounces around from post to post. When Grace finally achieves a pension from the “Gentlefolks Protection Association” at the end, she has a heart attack after hosting her favorite people to tea, her worries finally over.
It’s fairly terrific to be a spinster in 2017 reading this tale and recognizing the great freedom and abundance of opportunity that exists compared to those restrictive days where “it wasn’t done” to go out and work and where the only goal in life was marriage and babies.
The author’s preference for the old days is perhaps most evident in this: “If wages were low so was the price of a room, and if education was disorganized and hard to come by, who shall say that it was missed The masses knew their limitations, were trained to their jobs and opportunities and seldom sought beyond them, and if they lacked the costly smatterings of largely useless, compulsory information to be dealt out by the coming century, at least they escaped the heartbreaks of disillusion, the alienation from their own families, that a slight social rise in occupation commonly brings, together with the uphill business of eternally straining to go one better than the person next door.”
There’s some brilliant lines attacking Catholicism when Agatha decides to go to a nunnery, saying that the religion stifles the brain. “Naturally it ropes in the lonely woman, and the woman who has been thwarted in one of the dozen ways women can be thwarted, or who wants colour and variety in her life, or who, without being a good organizer herself, enjoys regularity and system in her life, or who yearns to be ‘mastered’… I’m not an intellectual woman or a clever one, but I agree with you that any religion that dares not let its follower think must have rather more than one rotten spot.”