Tuesday, January 14, 2014

F[LORA]. M[ACDONALD]. MAYOR – The Squire's Daughter (1929)

In my younger, more cynical days, I went through a long phase of being obsessed with the wild, liberated days of the 1920s.  At the time I started reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their ilk, I was just making my escape from a rather dysfunctional upbringing in rural Missouri, and the culture of the Roaring Twenties, with its portrayals of carefree, sophisticated, unentangled lives in places like Paris and New York, somehow helped to break me free of the past and imagine possibilities for my life quite different from those I had ever encountered in reality.

That I often missed the larger meanings of these novels in the midst of my romanticizing is understandable enough, considering I was still a teenager, though the fact that I recall actually admiring cold, jaded characters like Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley is rather more embarrassing to admit.  But I also came across Carl van Vechten’s Parties (1930), a much gayer (in all senses of the word) take on the period, which I do still love for its rather daft, zany spin on the morbid self-absorption of the Lost Generation, and which may also have served a liberatory purpose for me. 

At the time, these male writers’ portrayals of glamorous, stoical, tormented, but always witty objects of desire apparently seemed perfectly believable to me.  But in more recent years, and under the influence of the many women writers I neglected in younger days, I’ve wished that I could know a bit more about them—what kinds of families do Lady Brett and Daisy Buchanan come from?  What are they like when there are no men around to be seductive for?  Do they read?  Deal with servant problems?  Torture shopgirls with their imperious demands?  And what might they find to say to one another if they could be friends and really talk, rather than just dishing out cutting one-liners or casual dismissals of tradition?

What got me thinking about all of this again (for better or worse) was my recent reading of Flora MacDonald Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter.  This novel seems to be generally considered the ugly stepsister of Mayor’s other two novels, The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Rector’s Daughter (1924).  Three years ago or so, I read both of those (and the latter became one of my all-time favorites), but somehow I got distracted before proceeding to Mayor’s final novel, in part, I think, because what I'd read about it made it seem an unenticing read.  That’s a shame, really, because in the end it proved to be a fascinating and thought-provoking novel, and in some ways it convincingly portrays the kinds of conflicts that real flappers might have experienced when they weren’t being idealized and objectified by male writers.

Ron de Lacey (short for Veronica) is the flapper in question here—deeply conflicted and living a life that alternates between wild jags in London and quiet, bored times with her family on the country estate in Carne.  Janet Morgan, in her introduction to the Virago edition, notes that Mayor was unfamiliar with the wild lives of 1920s youth and that therefore the London scenes are not totally convincing.  For example, this early description reads perhaps a bit too much like a bad Hollywood portrayal of the period:

She liked to be thought hot stuff, and Nadine, who wanted to keep on her good side, flattered her and incited her to escapades.  She went about street singing, and took in Myra and Uncle Merrick.  She dressed in men's clothes, and accompanied Nadine as her partner to a thé dansant.  She flirted attractively with the girls, and they did not find her out.  Sometimes her adventures were less amusing and more disreputable.

But Ron’s central conflict, between tradition and liberation, and her resistance to playing the title role as daughter of the squire, is convincing enough, and is effectively summed up just a couple of paragraphs later:

Ron had many memories to foster them.  Her childhood with dear, strict Nana; her companionship at Carne with tile village children, the old people, the animals, the affectionate village mothers; the park and gardens where she often rambled in secret childish meditation; her boarding-schooI, and jolly, spoiling friendships with girls and mistresses, above all her father; their play and jokes, and rides on his shoulders; when she was older their long interminable walks round and round the rose-garden after dinner arm-in-arm, with Stephanie calling that she must come in and go to bed, or sitting together in the big study chair when she talked to him about everything. After she came to London she often derided his opinions; much went on there she would not have them know at Carne, but underneath its influence continued, stronger than the louder, more insistent present.

Ron is under pressure to function as the squire’s daughter because her brother Oswald has earned their father’s lasting contempt due to his unwillingness to enlist during WWI, and her sister Colette is too empty-headed to be of use.  Meanwhile, her aunt Laura is something of an alter-ego—representing the previous generation’s “squire’s daughter” who gleefully leapt into her conservative role and continues in it to this day:

Laura treated her corner of Kensington as if it were her own village; she created a county atmosphere in the shops she visited, even the tax and water-rate men became part of the retinue.  She had a like-minded circle of friends, busy widows, and spinsters, vicars, retired soldiers and Indian civilians.  They all stood for Church, King, the Services, Public Schools, and Primrose League.  One can guess their many, many aversions.

Ron’s evolving attitude toward Laura, from mockery of her traditional values to a sort of ambivalent admiration for her self-assurance and ability to cope with difficult situations, epitomizes the conflicts of the novel.  That Ron is not always totally likeable in this process, and veers so wildly between her two contrasting lives, may be part of the reason that critics have tended to see this as Mayor’s weakest work.  But as Morgan goes on to say in her introduction, Ron “is confusing because she is confused, unaware of her own nature, torn between bravely trying to grow from a spirited girl into a serene and confident woman and, resisting what may be no more than the temptation to play an accepted role, determinedly staying as she is.”

And similar conflicts are visible in the culture at large:

"Carne is one of our beauty spots," said the local guide-book, and it was to have its beauty improved. The County and District Councils and business enterprise had their eye on it. Hedges were to be cut down, tall elms felled, thatched cottages destroyed, pavement laid beside the grassy roads, old, bowery, odd, twisting, pleasant, sudden corners standardized to insignificance. There was to be concrete, corrugated iron, pink asbestos roofs and yellow boards proclaiming petrol everywhere.

But the modern spirit, the spirit of grumbling, was rife here as elsewhere: the road was difficult for charabancs, and why was there no linoleum factory as at Searle? Sharp village children attending Bainbridge High School came back dissatisfied with thatched cottages up little winding lanes.

In regard to some of my favorite themes, Laura is, of course, a prime example of spinsterhood at its most useful and conservative, and Ron’s mother, Stephanie, is a rather sad example of a maleficent malingerer—a delicate little hothouse flower who doesn’t get jokes, frets and whimpers to control her family with faux concern, but is ultimately shown rather compassionately as a lonely, confused, even tragic figure.

Ultimately, The Squire’s Daughter is a bit less bleak than The Rector’s Daughter, if also less polished and sustained in its brilliance.  I found it completely compelling and entertaining, even if it is unlikely to haunt me in the way that Rector’s Daughter continues to do.  As a much more complex and thoughtful portrait of the Roaring Twenties than male writers of the time gave us, though, The Squire’s Daughter should certainly be more widely read than it is.

And Mayor seems to have felt a bit freer about being funny here, as when Colette marries a wealthy American businessman and the family experiences culture shock in arranging the wedding at their local church.  Ron’s father tells Laura:

"Warriker isn't such a bad little fellow, but the mother sticks at nothing.  She wanted to move the tombs from the church. 'We could put them back where they were!' as she remarked."

But there is one particular outburst of comedy in the novel—at the expense, predictably enough, of a pretentious neighbor:

Lady Merstham sometimes worked in the garden, weeding a little, cutting off dead flowers a little, watering the unimportant things, and forgetting the important. The gardener combined contempt for her with a fond respect for gentry. "I just have to set one of the lads to tidy up where her ladyship's been, but it's a change for her after so much company."

Edith’s sewing matched her gardening. Mrs. Fuller wrote artfully, when the Sale of Work drew near. “I wonder if it would be convenient to send the things on the 5th. I know that’s early, but it’s nice to get everything in good time to see how much one has.” Then she undid all Edith’s brush and comb bags, and sewed them up again.

"Numbers of people's fingers are all thumbs," said Violet, "but Edith might just as well have no fingers at all."

(I’ve made a note of this line so I can steal it the next time someone asks me to do something requiring manual dexterity.  Sadly, it is true that when it comes to using my hands, at least for anything much beyond typing, I indeed might just as well have no fingers at all.)

Just one final point: Although the two novels have absolutely nothing to do with one another, I couldn't help thinking, while reading The Squire's Daughter, about the Winifred Duke novel I reviewed a week or two ago. There, the four daughters suffer under the domination of a patriarchal Victorian father who, effectively, ruins their chances at happiness. In the end, one of the sisters (briefly) muses about the cultural changes that resulted from World War I, and how the war put all of the petty dramas of their lives into perspective. 

I found myself thinking how much different those sisters' lives might have been had they been born just a bit later, and I also couldn't help thinking, despite Ron's occasionally grating self-absorption, how really deadly serious was the struggle many women were engaged in to break free of a tradition which kept them stifled.  If Ron hasn't quite figured out how to achieve a balance between a respectful appreciation of the past and the pursuit of her own fulfillment, a comparison with the sisters in Duke's novel nevertheless shows rather dramatically the astonishing progress she has already made and perhaps makes it a bit easier to forgive her shortcomings.

*     *     *

Janet Morgan’s introduction to the Virago edition also provides interesting background about Mayor’s life and other writings.  I've never had much information about her first published work—Mrs. Hammond’s Children—which Mayor published in 1901 under the pseudonym Mary Strafford.  Morgan describes it as a collection of stories “based on the relations among children and the kindnesses and cruelties they practise on one another.” 

She also mentions a work I had not previously heard of: “the slight but intriguing Miss Browne's Friend-A Story of Two Women, an exploration of a friendship between a suburban lady and a prostitute, published serially in the Free Church Suffrage Times.”  Sadly, neither of these works appear to be available anywhere, though both sound intriguing.  More for the Hopeless Wish List?

The blurb on the back cover of the Virago edition also notes that Mayor was a significant influence on Barbara Pym.  When I first read that, I thought it was daft, as Mayor (the passage quoted above notwithstanding) rarely even attempts the kind of hilarity or brilliant sarcasm we associate with Pym.  But now I'm not so sure.  It’s true that Mayor is less concerned with being funny, but there are nevertheless turns of phrase, or sharp, precise characterizations, on which one might indeed imagine a young Barbara Pym making notes…

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