This might be one of those posts that only interests me, and I may be letting my generally dormant academic instincts run a bit too rampant. But for the last couple of months, I seem to have been engaged in an obsessive project (is there any other kind for me?) to read almost everything Rachel Ferguson ever wrote, and I feel, since so few people have access to most of these books, that I should document my reading a bit and share it with anyone who is interested. So, bear with me (or skip right over this post if you prefer—I won't hold it against you).
I can't really say exactly what set me off on this project, though it certainly has something to do with having recently discovered another of her novels—her ninth, Evenfield (1942)—which I love. It may also just be a perfect storm: a combination of an enigmatic and intriguing author (relatively well-known for her second novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworth's , reprinted by Virago in the 1980s and by Bloomsbury in recent years, and for her seventh novel, Alas, Poor Lady , reprinted by Persephone, but otherwise Ferguson is pretty much lost to literary history); the fact that she wrote one of my all-time favorite novels (her eighth, A Footman for the Peacock , which I discussed here); and the irresistible (and initially seemingly hopeless) challenge of tracking down copies of her often vanishingly rare books.
Then, add to that the mystery that seems to have surrounded her bibliography for some years—the question of just how many novels she actually wrote. If I seemed, above, to be stressing the chronology and number of her novels, it's because every online source I've come across produces a different total number of Ferguson novels.
Presumably, the discrepancies have been caused in part by the fact that some of these books are so thoroughly forgotten and hard to find, and in part by the fact that some of her books have seemed to defy definition—I've said before that Ferguson was nothing if not a distinctively peculiar author with her own unique approach to novels as well as to the other genres she tackled. But whatever the reason, from Wikipedia (which credits her with 13 novels) to Bloomsbury's website (which puts the number at 10) to Persephone's website (which stiffs her and credits her with only 9), there's considerable disagreement and little accuracy as to just how many novels Ferguson actually wrote.
It probably won't surprise any of you who regularly read this blog that I am going to be perversely different and assert that all of these sources are incorrect—that in fact Ferguson wrote not 9, not 10, not 13, but actually 12 novels. How do I have the chutzpah to claim to know more than the authors of these bios? Um, well, because I've actually been reading all of them, that's why!
In a later post, I'm going to sum up this project and post the most definitive bibliography I can come up with, but for now, here's a list of Ferguson's twelve novels:
False Goddesses (1923)
The Brontës Went to Woolworth's (1931)
The Stag at Bay (1932)
Popularity's Wife (1932)
A Child in the Theatre (1933)
A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936)
Alas, Poor Lady (1937)
A Footman for the Peacock (1940)
The Late Widow Twankey (1943)
A Stroll Before Sunset (1946)
Sea Front (1954)
(Oddly, Wikipedia lists The Late Widow Twankey as a play—presumably because it's subtitled "in Twenty-Two Magnificent Scenes"—but it is without a doubt a novel, which just happens, like several other novels of the time, to use the structure of a theatrical production.)
Now, I am a huge Rachel Ferguson fan, and this project of reading her more widely has, if anything, made me even more passionate about her. But everyone has their flaws, and Ferguson's are most clearly on display in the three early works I want to mention in this post, two of which in particular may also have contributed to the confusion surrounding her total number of novels. I'll look at those two first.
Sara Skelton: The Autobiography of a Famous Actress (1929) and Victorian Bouquet: Lady X Looks On (1931) form an oddly repetitious pair. Both are hard to categorize but might be called humor, of the same ilk (but definitely with Ferguson's distinct spin) as those books written by Cornelia Otis Skinner, say, in the 1950s and 1960s, or by Erma Bombeck in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, they seem to have been referred to as satires. Each of the books features Ferguson narrating—from the perspective of a cranky, aging stage actress of limited intelligence and unlimited ego—a series of archly (far too archly, for the most part) humorous observations on topics of the day or reminiscenses of past events and cultural occasions. Although the former is putatively an "autobiography" while the latter is more obviously a series of reminiscences and commentaries, they are birds of a feather, the latter presumably resulting from the success of the former.
Both books also seem to have grown out of Ferguson's work as a popular columnist and theatre critic for Punch (both are credited on the title page to "Rachel of Punch"), as did two more books from the next few years—Nymphs and Satires (1932), a collection of some of her Punch pieces, and Celebrated Sequels (1934), which, according to one source, "parodies such popular writers of the day as E. M. Delafield, Beverly Nichols, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and Hugh Walpole." This origin may also help explain why the books weren't really up my alley—they were undoubtedly targeted for a very specific audience that was "in the know" not only about theatrical history, celebrities, and popular culture dating back to Victorian years, but also about the sort of distinctly conservative, elitist, and sometimes outright offensive attitudes that are (I think) partly being satirized, but are also, it seems to me, viewed rather indulgently. More on that below.
Sara Skelton has become so obscure as to be left off of some Ferguson bibliographies altogether (thank you to University of Iowa, the one and only U.S. library with a copy, for actually lending it out!), while Victorian Bouquet has sometimes been erroneously described as a novel. Bizarrely, Ferguson's own 1936 novel, A Harp in Lowndes Square—published by a different publisher than the earlier books, who quite possibly had never read them—lists Sara Skelton, along with Nymphs and Satires and Celebrated Sequels, under the heading of "satires," but lists Victorian Bouquet among Ferguson's novels. One imagines Ferguson befuddled and amused by such a designation.
|My interlibrary loan copy of Victorian|
Bouquet clearly started life as a
Mudie's Library book
Starting with the positive, there are some really striking passages here and there in both books, as well as some daft humor that made me giggle. Here, from Victorian Bouquet, is "Lady X" on the suffrage movement:
For thirty years I made jokes about the feminine ballot, to please the men. And one fine day, I found myself at the head of a section surrounded by banners bearing many a strange device, marching down Whitehall, and revelling in every moment of it! By my side marched a dowager duchess and a laundrymaid.
Commonly, I detest these sentimental contrasts, but there it was.
I had discovered the team-spirit, which is of far more value to us than a dozen of votes. I had left my wits, my tongue, my looks, my sex-appeal and my social standing at home to look after the house. Shorn of all but the weapon of theoretic idealism, I tramped … the suffrage campaign, I see now, was our Eton and Oxford, our regiment, our ship, our cricket match.
And the day that a respectable paterfamilias, who in his saner moments would have sprung to open doors for me or fasten my shoestring, threw an elderly banana-skin at me, I was filled with an inner gratification far more real than when my husband came into the title and I became a countess.
One wonders (certainly not for the only time in reading these two books—or for that matter most of Ferguson's work) how much of Ferguson herself is in this passage and how much is the character she's inhabiting. But either way, it's an interesting and amusing portrayal of the unlikely camaraderie, liberation, and exhilaration that suffrage marches and protests must have allowed many women to feel for the first time. And Bouquet features several other particularly striking samples of early feminism, such as:
And then, I think, I took to musing over the astounding differences in human lives which are wrought by the trivial fact of sex. A girl's life and a boy's! To be a young man for just one day would, for a young woman, put the world in a totally different light. To be able to loiter without being followed. To be able to chat to car-men, newsvendors—policemen, even, without being stared at or hurried to by a crowd hoping you are in some dubious dilemma. To be able to knock people down instead of merely screaming for an always problematical assistance. To realize that one's looks don't matter—ah! that's the real freedom. To go out merely clean and to be harried by no tremors in respect of face powder, veil, hairpins, competitive dressing, high winds and petticoats. To scrap the provocative ankle and alluring veil, and just be a human being instead of an expensive assortment of sexual potentialities. To be done with the arch glance, the attack that, failing muscle, must coax, that failing brawn must argue … a woman's tongue is a tried and trusted jape with men, but it is our substitute for a fist. That, and the steamy arts of seduction which, unfortunately, do not always automatically accompany the feminine makeup.
Perhaps even more fascinating, a few pages later, is a clear awareness—sometimes still lost on today's feminists—of the fact that gender norms and restrictions oppress men as well as women. Lady X offers this advice to her young son:
I said to him: "There will be school, being fagged and probably bullied. Some fool will be there to laugh at my letters to you—for old women are perennially comic, as you will learn, my dear. You'll only be yourself till you are ten, and after that, my poorest and plainest, your whole life will be one concentrated effort to be exactly like the other man."
Of course, then she turns around and makes a few references (surely still rather titillating for the late 1920s and early 1930s) to gay men and lesbians that are rather less liberated. Here's Lady X's take on lesbians, for example:
At Adrian's parties, I am often the only woman present.
At the Studio Party I am often the only indisputable female in the room too, with the possible exception of one or two of the young gentlemen, because the ladies arrive in shirt-fronts, and sometimes in monocles and dinner jackets as well. I have listened to scorn poured upon them for this, and, indeed, why these ladies balk at trousers I cannot imagine. Personally, I think that their choice of attire is the worst they can do to us. I don't mind what a woman does so long as she doesn't dress as though she did it. But, for all that, I have my moments when I should like to undress the whole lot of them, and find out what the matter really is.
Otherwise, to take offence at them is unintelligent.
Um, yeah. Though I have to confess that I found this possibly homophobic passage from Sara Skelton (it's not about gay men per se, but it's certainly a condemnation of men who aren't sufficiently masculine), about the evolution of boxing matches, rather hilarious in a very silly sort of way:
In the 'seventies, prize-fights were often to-the-death affairs and not functions where, for fifteen guineas, you had not time to push your way from the entrance to a ringside seat before the bout was over, and the protagonists, sipping barley-water in ladies' dressing-gowns, were borne home in Rameses cars to spend the evening painting sprays of flowers in each other's birthday books.
[These passages are also intriguing—as are other elements of these books about elderly actresses—in relation to Ferguson's enigmatic but fascinating late novel A Stroll Before Sunset, which focuses on two rival aging actresses (I wrote about that novel here), and which presents some striking views about homosexuality and "feminine" men. It also features a prominently "feminine" man in a boxing match, so this was clearly an evocative image for Ferguson.]
Also from Sara Skelton, here is a sample of more pure silliness that made me laugh, from the great actress's childhood recollections:
I only remained at the Convent a few months, during which time I alternated between running away, childish attempts to commit suicide and a passionate determination to take the veil. The Mother Superior told me I was going to hell; I was always excited about new moves, and being thoroughly accustomed to travelling I thought that would be very nice, and hoped hell would look like the Brockett scene, and that the lighting would be more effective than the Keans made it.
Sadly, though, there are too few such passages. Much of the humor falls flat, as Ferguson was writing for such a specific audience and assuming so much about their knowledge of the theatre and sophisticated popular culture. And then, too, at the other end of the spectrum, there's much time spent, here and there (far too frequently) in both books, on pontifications about class.
Now, admittedly, as I already noted, Ferguson is playing the role of cranky, elderly, bigoted, rather dim-witted stage actresses, so we are certainly not intended to take all of the assertions at face value. And considering that this is the same author who, a decade or so later, was viciously mocking and satirizing the loathsome upper-crust family in A Footman for the Peacock, it's genuinely difficult to know just how much of Sara Skelton and Victorian Bouquet is intended seriously. What, for example, to make of Lady X's opinion of class relations generally:
I do not believe for a second that we are all equal. I believe that blood tells and always will. I believe in the deep necessity to England of Kingship, whose lowest manifestation is the love of a show that meanders through a tradition-riddled city; whose highest is the personal affection, however uncouthly expressed, that we bear our Royals, in spite of their Teutonic connexions and their preposterous hats. I could almost find it in my heart to believe in the Divine Right of Kings. And am certainly content to believe the King can do no wrong. I like to know that there are those more highly-born than myself—and oh! how much wealthier! I recognize that I have my social inferiors, and I expect them to do the same. Class jealousy is completely beyond my ken.
There are jokes at Lady X's expense here, no doubt, and perhaps we're to laugh at her very pomposity (particularly considering that she herself apparently married above her station), but for a modern reader it's not particularly funny. There are other passages that seem much more clearly to mock the stupidity and intolerance of some of the upper classes, as in Lady X's recollection of her mother's exchange at a dinner-party:
I remember, once, at a dinner-party at the Salisbury's in Arlington Street, hearing our hostess murmur to my mother: "My butler is leaving to get married," and Mamma's reply: "Insolent creature!…"
And truth be told, these sentiments do echo in a good many of Ferguson's works throughout her career, which makes it even more difficult to get a feel for where Ferguson's own feelings lie underneath the layers of irony.
[By the way, I'd be remiss not to mention that both Sara Skelton and Victorian Bouquet also contain short but shocking passages of virulent racism—both in relation to African-Americans. I literally gasped in reading both of them. The surface of each may be intended as satire and to reflect negatively on the actresses themselves (too ignorant to know any better, etc.), but I'm afraid I could find no really satisfactory explanation for them.]
It doesn't get a lot easier to interpret Ferguson's own beliefs when we throw her short, strange (of course), third novel into the mix. The Stag at Bay is an interesting if rather disjointed little novel. It seems to have been published only in an adorable little paperback edition, which (thanks to Stanford University Library) I was able to hold in my hot little hands (as well as scanning the cover for you, which was in amazingly good condition, considering its age). Paperback originals—at least by serious writers, as opposed to dime novelettes—seem to have been fairly rare at that time, and I wonder if the novel might have been edited down from a longer original manuscript to fit a length limit imposed by the publisher. Ferguson typically errs on the side of wordiness (if not always clarity), especially in her later novels, which grow progressively dense and labyrinthine in their prose (and I do mean that as a compliment, though perhaps some readers would disagree). But The Stag at Bay is so plucked and pruned that I found it difficult to follow in places, as if explanatory passages had been ruthlessly deleted by an over-aggressive editor. Or perhaps Ferguson was experimenting here with the simpler, more understated storytelling that Hemingway had popularized? If so, one assumes she put it down as a failed experiment…
The plot very much revolves around class concerns—more specifically the decline of an old family, and the rise of a newly-rich family of business folk who end up purchasing their property, oblivious of all the responsibilities the landed gentry have traditionally upheld. The situation is presented as a tragic one, and the scene in which the noble, loyal duke must tell his noble, loyal farmers of the impending sale of the estate, with much resultant handwringing on both sides, is perhaps the central drama of the novel. Surely, however ironic Ferguson often is (and however much we might disagree with the sentiment), the following lofty passage about this world turned upside down seems heartfelt and genuine:
And when the nobility of England had been finally hounded into the villas of suburbia, what would follow?
It meant that in a very few generations the grand and great-grandchildren of the best blood, the blood privileged, would subtly assimilate the atmospheres of suburbia. Perhaps in two hundred years—and for all time after that, nobility would be purged away. And in its place would be—what?
Bewilderment. A coming race in whom wavered the flame indomitable. … A coming race whose lingering fineness—always freakishly liable to reincarnate—warred with circumstance, whose every delicate perception hampered.
A new Lost Tribe.
Oh, dear. It's rather like one's grandfather telling one about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, isn't it? Kids these days, etc. (Though I have to confess I sometimes find myself thinking in perhaps comparable—if not quite such class-based—ways about the decline of artistic and literary culture, so perhaps I am almost as cranky as Ferguson.)
For what it's worth, the nouveau riche aren't entirely demonized, though their characters aren't nearly as sympathetic as some in Ferguson's later novels. Perhaps she mellowed a bit with age? (But then I recall Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book discussing her memoir, We Were Amused—see here—and noting that her class biases are still firmly in place in the final book she wrote, so perhaps she just became more empathetic toward characters at all levels of society as she became a better, more nuanced writer, while retaining her essential beliefs.)
The most interesting element in The Stag at Bay is the character of Miss Postlethwaite, the companion of the duke's sister, Lady ffolliott, though she doesn't appear often enough and isn't presented vividly enough to redeem the novel (and Ferguson tackles the plight of ladies' companions much more entertainingly and sensitively in her final novel Sea Front, which I plan to post about soon—again, bear with me in this obsession!). She has one memorable rant near the end of the novel, which earns the novel a mention alongside the far superior later novel Alas, Poor Lady in Ferguson's Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. I'll quote it here, as it's virtually the only memorable passage from the novel:
"You mustn't be too sorry for me because you like me." She began to speak with a thin, roused passion. " There are hundreds of women—ladies—all over England, and oh! the number in London!—who won't beg and can't work, who are starving by genteel inches in boarding-houses if they are lucky—'catteries' they are called—dear women, fine women, born mothers some of them; and they decay and decay, and come down to taking an interest in the new Swiss waiter and bickering for the best places by the fire. … If they were the nobility they'd get credit, or sell their treasures, like the duke—if they were the women of the working-class they'd be visited by Royalty and attended to in Parliament as a 'national problem.' But they aren't a national problem … they're just impoverished gentlewomen."
Perhaps this suddenly flaring concern, very much a backdrop to the drama of the decline of the gentry in The Stag at Bay, was the kernel that grew, five years later, into Alas, Poor Lady.
Having now read so much of Ferguson's work, I do have a bit of a theory about her class beliefs. There's a bewildering conflict here. She is able to be so empathetic and entertaining—not to mention viciously satirical and utterly hilarious about snobbishness and entitlement—in some of her writing. And then in other spots she seems to become the most gleeful elitist one could ever hope to meet, disdaining the unwashed masses and scorning those who don't remember their place.
Which is the "real" Rachel Ferguson, I ask myself, and which is a sharp satirizing of the kind of person who takes such perspectives? It's rather difficult to tell, and of course I don't claim to have a definitive answer. But it certainly seems that both are the real Rachel Ferguson. I think that—perhaps not unlike a good many authors we read and love from this period?—Ferguson genuinely believed in the fundamental goodness of a kind of idealized, traditional class system—noblesse oblige and all that—with an upper class that benevolently leads the nation, preserves the great traditions and intellectual pursuits, and charitably protects the underlings beneath them. It's not a perspective that very many of us can share today, and not many writers even at the time were quite so open in expressing it, nor had they done all the analysis Ferguson has clearly done, but a good many people probably took it as a given at the time. And Ferguson seems to have truly felt it was the most beneficial arrangement for everyone involved.
On the other hand, when Ferguson took something seriously, she was passionate and eloquent in defending it, and this is where, for me, she redeems her less palatable beliefs. Because although she occasionally, as in the passage quoted above, grates on our nerves by bemoaning the uppity lower classes, her most brilliantly scathing mockery is generally reserved for those of the upper classes who fail to uphold the role she feels they are destined to play. This is what makes A Footman for the Peacock so great, I think, and what may have been misunderstood by critics at the time as making light of wartime concerns. She's simply not having any of a loathsome family of elites dodging their duties to the nation and to others.
Perhaps I have a high tolerance for the bigotries of my favorite authors (Hemingway was a glaring homophobe, in addition to his misogyny and racism, and I love him anyway; ditto with Virginia Woolf and her own brand of elitism). But I do find that Ferguson's refusal to just accept the upper classes as somehow inately superior, her expectation that their behavior should match the position they occupy, that they should be held accountable, is a comprehensible and consistent one. It doesn't make me agree with her, but I admire that she applies her standards ruthlessly and equally.
I do wonder, though, having loved The Brontës Went to Woolworth's for nearly a decade now, what bee could possibly have got in Ferguson's bonnet that led her from the charming madness of that novel to the stodgy, preachy tone of The Stag at Bay just one year later. It's the most forgettable of her mostly delightfully odd accumulation of (twelve!) novels. And Sara Skelton and Victorian Bouquet are, if anything, even more forgettable (unless one finds it hard to forget how uncomfortable and irritating they are).