Saturday, March 15, 2014

A[DELAIDE]. M[ARY]. CHAMPNEYS, Miss Tiverton Goes Out (1925)

I have a distinct weakness for really odd books, and honestly, Miss Tiverton Goes Out is surely a kind of masterpiece of oddness.  It’s a peculiar hybrid of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s, with a bit of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse thrown in at the end and perhaps a smidgen of Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters added for seasoning. 

While you’re trying to fathom such a bewildering combination (appropriate, really, since in a very real sense this is a novel about bewilderment), I’ll go on to say the novel tells of a dysfunctional family and the elderly woman next door who becomes a powerful symbol of good (for the family’s neglected youngest daughter) and evil (for her nouveau riche, money-hungry father).  Miss Tiverton may also represent the family’s class ambitions and the tradition they try and fail to belong to, as well as their flip side, a sort of reactionary stagnation.  And since she never actually appears in the novel (exceptsort ofin its final pages), the novel leaves intentionally ambiguous any possible truth about the real Miss Tiverton.  She is a figure of fantasy and speculation, and ends up a kind of Godot figure, molding the actions and beliefs of her neighbors without, it seems, ever giving them much of a thought.

It's the central cliché of this blog to say I'm surprised this book isn't in print and more widely read, so I won't say exactly that this time.  But I can say, rather more unusually, that I wouldn't have been at all surprised had I picked up Miss Tiverton in a Penguin Modern Classics edition.  It's brilliantly literary and psychological, and Champneys (who, for whatever reason, originally published most of her novels anonymously) was perhaps indeed influenced by the aforementioned James, but was almost certainly also influenced by the high modernism of her time.  James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf—surely all of them had a hand in the creation.  And yet, the novel really is completely its own thing, not quite like any of them (and perhaps more readable as well).  No doubt its peculiarity has played a part in its obscurity, but it seems to me it could just as easily have made it a classic.

The center of the novel is Juliet, a confused, lonely 10-year-old when the novel opens, who has been left to her own devices by her indifferent and self-absorbed family.  She has had no real education and no one to trouble themselves with her, and she mostly wanders solitary in and around her social climbing family's large house in an up-and-coming London neighborhood:

It was the kind of family which takes no notice of any unit except when that unit is strongly asserting itself: it was, preeminently, the kind of family in which to be overlooked is not otherwise than a boon. When you are thinking, feeling, doing a little differently from every one else, it is comfortable not to have to account for the differences.

Her fundamental isolation is summed up a little later when her sister prepares to elope with a veterinarian, to the horror of the family:

It had never occurred to Juliet that her sister could be unhappy. Even for herself, unhappiness was a condition hardly recognized. There were disappointments, of course, and little sadnesses like the nurse going; and, very occasionally, horrible things happened, like the discovery that your men-folk were wicked. But, for all you knew, everybody's fathers and brothers might be wicked. Anyhow, either you could alter these things, or you could not. If in some particular instance they mattered very much to you personally, at least you could always scream; and if you screamed loud enough and long enough somebody usually did something. Fortunately, however, other people, and their ways of going on, as a rule had nothing to do with you, so that you needn't take much notice.

As a result of her solitude, Juliet is a highly imaginative child who regularly misinterprets what interactions she does have with others, and uses the resulting distortions to translate class tensions, her sister's romance and desire to escape the family, and the behavior of Miss Tiverton's randy cat—among other things—into something she can comprehend.

Grosset & Dunlap bookmark
included in Miss Tiverton

This is sometimes quite funny, usually fascinating, and often provides real insight into the enigmas she's confronted with.  For example, Juliet overhears and misinterprets her father's complaints about Miss Tiverton.  He's a real estate developer who has bought up most of the land surrounding Miss Tiverton's shrunken, walled-in estate, and is now waiting for her to die so he can capitalize on his investments.  When he complains that Miss Tiverton is "too old to die," Juliet takes him literally, and believes that the "time immemorial" in which Miss Tiverton has lived on her estate is a sort of heaven, a place of peace and harmony, ruled over by its benevolent immortal but threatened by her evil father's incursions.  This interpretation—fantastic though it may be—provides some striking insights into the family's own illusions about and striving toward the upper classes.

Later, a visit, with her father and his adviser, to an abandoned neighboring estate (referred to by her father as “the old carcass”) leads her to incorporate his bewildering reference into her worldview:

She was not blind to the significance of the gate connecting the Grange field with Miss Tiverton's wilderness. Feverishly, she tried to piece things together. This must be the way by which the carcass had come to see Miss Tiverton when they lived alone together in time immemorial. . . . But it wouldn't have been a carcass then. What would it have been? In a flash the secret burst upon her: it would have been Miss Tiverton's lover.

Although many of Juliet’s conclusions are indeed funny or though-provoking, some are a bit more darkly and meanderingly philosophical, and I could imagine her analyses irritating some readers.  The novel is perhaps slowed down a bit too much by them in places.  

But I have to confess that I found myself rather identifying with Juliet at times, and found her mythologizing of the bewildering people and situations around her quite fascinating.  I too was a solitary child in a dysfunctional family, and Juliet's wavering efforts to understand the world and what is expected of her and why, without the benefit of normalcy or role models, seemed familiar to me.  This was true for me even when she sometimes comes across as bordering on madness, as when—later in the novel, with the Great War raging (Juliet considers it a "nuisance") and she, now seventeen, serving as a VAD nurse in a hospital run in the home of an elegant cousin of the family—a senile earl mistakes her for Griselda, a lovely debutante from his younger days, and Juliet seems to almost believe, to sink right into, his hallucination, as if it’s somehow her “real” place.

Juliet's experience of trying to solve the enigma of proper behavior (using the example of her rather prissy friend Margaret) when she's never experienced normalcy is summed up rather well, and rather poignantly, using her fascination with the surrounding estates as a metaphor for the pitfalls of reality:

Sometimes, however, you didn't find notices where they ought to have been, and where some day they would be: then you stumbled ingloriously into pitfalls that had surely never existed before. It was rather depressing, this not knowing your way about your own mind; yet she was certain that, if Margaret were allowed to work unhampered, the wilderness would blossom at last on a perfectly-ordered plan. And perhaps, meanwhile, if she studied the Sadler family more and more closely she would begin to see in advance what the plan was like. For the present she must make herself realize that all her old landmarks of conduct were treacherous, and all her old thinkings a mere entanglement among weeds.

Interestingly, however, it is Juliet's ability to distance herself from the concerns of her family that allows her to be of use to them in a crisis…

If only they were still
only one dollar...

I couldn't begin to tease out all the shades of meaning in Miss Tiverton Goes Out, and it will no doubt re-pay a re-read or two.  In fact, it actually seems to deserve more attention from scholars than it has received (i.e. nil, as far as I can tell).  Contemporary reviews were largely positive, and the book was popular enough for Champneys' publisher to use "By the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out" on her subsequent anonymously-published works, but it never seems to have been reprinted and must have faded quickly from critics' consciousness.  Perhaps it deserves a reassessment?

At any rate, to leave you on a light note, I quite liked this passage near the end of the novel, which incorporates humor into a wartime scene—always a favorite combination—as well as displaying just a touch of the hard-won independence and maturity Juliet has gradually acquired:

There was no basement in Ashtree Towers. You sat, therefore, during air-raids, on anything you could find to sit upon in the back passage. Nobody knew why this should be safer than the hall, or even than the drawing-room: the servants declared it to be so, and Mr. Simpson must have been impressed by their opinion, since he had given orders that here, and here only, the family should assemble at sound of the first maroon. Conceivably he may have felt, as regarded his own august person, that the back passage was not a place in which bombs would expect to find him.

"If you're killed," Mr. Simpson called to her, "you'll have only yourself to blame. And if we're all killed as well, perhaps you'll feel remorse."

"I should be so busy blaming myself for my own death," Juliet (without turning) threw back in her clear voice, "that I mightn't have time."

A later anonymously-published novel by Champneys,
making use of Miss Tiverton's popularity


  1. Oh joy, another book to tuck into my ipod to read when I'm trapped somewhere without a book.

    I downloaded it from

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Susan. It has its slower moments, but I really found it completely fascinating. I just noticed that also has one of her later novels--how did I miss that?

  2. That sounds like a wonderful recipe, and I've just downloaded a copy from Open Library. Thank you!


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