Thursday, September 1, 2016

RACHEL FERGUSON, Popularity's Wife (1932), Charlotte Brontë (1933), and The Late Widow Twankey (1943)

I've posted several times in recent months about my ongoing obsession with tracking down and reading all twelve of Rachel Ferguson's novels, as well as several of her other works, many of them now quite rare. And believe it or not, this project started even before I knew that I would be publishing some of her books under the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. I've posted already about all three of the novels we're reprinting in October—A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936), A Footman for the Peacock (1940), and Evenfield (1942). Now I'm reporting on three more of Ferguson's extraordinarily unusual works.

Popularity's Wife (1932) was published the same year as The Stag at Bay, which I mentioned in an earlier post and which I found rather unsatisfying. I don't know for sure which came first, honestly, though I've guessed that Stag was her third novel and Wife her fourth. The latter is certainly an enormous improvement on the former. While Stag had, for me, few high points at all, Popularity's Wife shows more of the humor, personality, and quite distinct perspective that had, only a year or so before, made The Brontës Went to Woolworth's so memorable.

The novel is about a squire's daughter, Mary Arbuthnot, who runs off to marry a singer, Dion Saffyn, to the horror of her father, and then has difficulty coping with his "popularity" with other women. It follows them through the challenges of setting up house together—with far fewer servants and resources than Mary is accustomed to—on to childrearing and into middle age. If the plot didn't quite come together, for me at least, there are certainly passages here and there that might have written by a slightly tipsy Barbara Pym. Some of my favorites are near the beginning, as in the scene where Mary and her friend Leslie are coping with the "excellent women" of the village church:

An ideal of excessive punctuality was intangibly diffused all the week previous to the Festival, and the parish hacks gathered early, stacking their offerings neatly. It was etiquette which then prevented them from setting to work. Their allotted places differed not from year to year; nor must they helpfully encroach upon the uncharted territories of the Wyatt set. But, on the other hand, Mrs Wyatt and Miss Pragman reserved to themselves power to take over any person's job. The rankers, then swelled in numbers, waited about, and upon the signal began to tumble over each other to make up for lost time, always in the dark as to whether the toil of their hands would be passed.

'It's like The Jungle,' whispered Leslie West. 'D'you remember where they made it a rule in the stockyards that the work was to be speeded up, and speeded up and the bosses stood by with stop-watches, and then when the men were dripping with blood and sweat they were told that as they had done double the work in exactly the same time they wouldn't be paid extra, as it wasn't overtime.'

'I don't quite see the connection,' Mary answered.

'Nor do I really, but we follow the shape of that system,' Leslie added vaguely.

And a bit later in the same scene:

Leslie appeared on the moment with a paper bag in her hand. Miss Pragman laid aside her notebook with finality. 'Miss West, we are all here, could you not manage to be a little earlier? It makes the organisation of the wark so difficult when the warkers are not up to time.'

'I'm sorry, I was here before—anybody, and I just went out, as there seemed to be nothing doing.' Miss Pragman blinked, but refrained. 'Now, ladies, we can begin. Miss Leech, will you do the two Norman columns? Thank you. Your sister will help you. I expect you will prefer to wark together.' Vigorously she united the old sisters, who had had a bitter feud over the breakfast table on the subject of scorched eggs. Miss Lettice had deliberately omitted an instruction to the servant about supper in order that, as they started, she might run back and thus do away with the otherwise unavoidable necessity of walking with Bertha to the church. Stiffly she excused herself as she carried out the ruse, and Bertha had countered with a reference to imperfect housekeeping. Both sisters recognised the injustice of the gibe.

Hilarious stuff, and certainly a strong hint of what was to come later in Ferguson's career.

Fortunately, the class obsessions that made The Stag at Bay and Ferguson's satirical works Victorian Bouquet and Sara Skelton rather painful to wade through are more muted here. There is some concern, for instance, with the idea that Mary has married beneath her, though in fact the marriage, for all of its oddities and Dion's apparent infidelities, seems like a basically happy one. And it's quite an interesting relationship for Ferguson to be portraying in 1932, especially considering how much better Mary seems to feel about Dion's women once she starts doing a bit of philandering (or at least some serious flirtation) herself, and their three daughters' perspectives on all of it are fascinating as well.

I do admit that, like The Stag at Bay, there were times when I had a bit of trouble following along in Personality's Wife. Ferguson is known for her rather intricate, practically Proustian prose, a characteristic that would develop gorgeously—and, unlike Proust, hilariously—in her later novels. Here, it perhaps hasn't quite coalesced yet, so I did find myself now and then re-reading and turning pages trying to figure out what had just happened. But there's also no doubt that it's a striking advance over Stag (assuming as I am that it really did come after), and as a preview of coming attractions it's well worth reading.

The year after she published Personality's Wife, Ferguson made her one foray into drama. It's ironic, considering her love for the theatre and how frequently actors and performers appear in her fiction, that she only made a single attempt to involve herself with it as a writer. I haven't found any references online to how successful the play was, but somehow a copy of it found its way to the San Francisco Public Library, where it resides (in circulation, no less) to this day.

The Brontës were all the rage in the 1930s, and a goodly number of writers from my Overwhelming List wrote fiction or non-fiction about them (as well as, of course, about Jane Austen, who was having one of her many vogues at that time as well), so Ferguson was playing it unusually safe by titling her one effort Charlotte Brontë and dramatizing the major life events of poor Charlotte, both just before and after the loss of her sisters.

For my fellow book fetishists, I can't resist sharing this image of the
vintage library card holder and the Date Due slip which suggests
I was the first person to check out the book in 56 years!

She was also playing it safe in her mode of presenting the Brontës. She had gently joked about the sisters in The Brontës Went to Woolworth's, but here she mostly plays it straight, with the result that little of Ferguson's more outrageous (and entertaining) personality comes through. We get a taste of it when she opens the play with a present day tour group being escorted through the Brontës old home in Haworth (a preview, for me, of my own pilgrimage to Brontë country in October!), and a family of Americans comes in for the broadest mockery, of course (perhaps also a preview of my visit, though I shall try to restrain my most uncouth American instincts). After that, we flash back to the Brontës themselves, and it's all pleasant enough, if mostly rather melodramatic and predictable. It's only later on, after Charlotte's success, when we see a glimmer of Ferguson's satire in a party scene, in which the authoress is uncomfortable toasted by famous authors and fawners alike. The hostess toys with one superficial hanger-on and flirts with another:

MRS. C.: I always think one meets all the most interesting people at Mr. Thackeray's.
DUCHESS: There are occasional exceptions.
MRS. C.: Yes. How true. That young man over there, for instance.
DUCHESS: My grandson. (MRS. CHUTE gasps, and edges away. The DUCHESS chuckles, and pokes MR. EVERARD to her.) I know I'm a liar, Mr. Everard, but I couldn't resist it. You are my grandson, to-night.
MR. EV.: Only that? How lamentably respectable!
DUCHESS: It needn't be. Think o' the Borgias.

But alas, there's little of such lightness here, and most of the play is more focused on the tragic elements of the Brontës' lives. Early on, for instance, Ferguson presents Emily as having something like second sight, or a personal connection with the spirit world, and thus melodramatically previews the sisters' sad futures:

CHAR.: You must not touch her! I don't understand why. I only know you mustn't.
EM. (gazing fixedly straight ahead): Yes, I can hear You clearly. I have been listening for You. Is it to come, so soon? You must be merciful, for they are only children in understanding, my Charlotte and my Anne, my sisters … they are not like me, who have always known You ... Your wild, compelling voice. Remember that. I command You, remember that.
ANNE: Emmy ...
EM.: And must You have them all? What, every one! Oh, You will get Your way, but I must go before them, lest they fear and cower. I must be there to welcome them and warm them (relaxing and looking about her). What's the matter? Why do you both look at me so? Have—have I said anything?
CHAR.: No, my bonny. (A bell tinkles, and ANNE rises hastily.)

At times, I admit, the drama was surprisingly effective, but most of it could have been written by virtually any author of the day. Perhaps Ferguson realized that her best gifts couldn't easily be presented in such a mainstream form as popular drama, and this is why she never made another attempt. Charlotte Brontë is a pleasant enough curiosity in her career, but not particularly a standout for me.

But if Ferguson stifled her most eccentric impulses in writing for the theatre, she certainly let all the eccentricity out when it came, a decade later, to her tenth novel, The Late Widow Twankey (1943). I've quoted here before Ferguson's own statement about the peculiarities of The Brontës Went to Woolworth's. She reportedly said, while in the midst of writing it, "It's getting so odd that I'm rather frightened of it." But for my money she hit hitherto unfathomed heights of oddness with Widow. (Perhaps, by that late stage in her career, she was so accustomed to the strangeness of her work that she was no longer even a little frightened by it.)

It's not even an easy novel to summarize. Unlike Evenfield, published one year before, The Late Widow Twankey is set firmly in wartime and in a country village called Daisydown, but those are just about the only things absolutely firm about it. The uncertainty here, however, is certainly a key part of the plot.

The local vicar's wife, who has lived in the village for three years as the story opens, has been uneasy for some time about the residents of the village, who seem, somehow, to be intruders from another realm:

Stated quite baldly, without introspective trimmings or metaphysic stews, it amounted to a hidden conviction that the villagers were people leading double lives, one to your face and the other behind your back.

One begins to wonder when one encounters such characters as Dick Whittington and the titular Widow Twankey, not to mention a bit later when families like the Bopeeps and the Ridinghoods make their appearance. There's a Cinderella, with her stepsisters Clorinda and Thisbe, a Prince Charming who becomes, ironically, the vicar's wife's chief confidant, and two rather creepy Babes (i.e. in the Wood) who are far too old for their roles. I know next to nothing about traditional British pantomime, but it's clear that the oddities the vicar's wife notes stem from the characters of the novel being, well, characters from pantomime, attempting to adapt to wartime life in a small English village.

A very faded inscription in my copy of
Late Widow Twankey. The name appears
to be Nina Thurston (?), and the date is
Feb 12 '44.  I wonder if the date format
suggests it was owned by an American?

It's a clever concept, and Ferguson carries it off with her usual entertaining weirdness, though it never became quite clear to me to what extent the characters were compelled in some way to play their roles and to what extent they were merely pretending to play them for the sake of appearances. But perhaps that's the point—I think there's a real point beneath all the lunacy—that we all are in part driven to fulfill the roles we're born to, and in part resist them or merely pretend to play them while going about our own business when out of the public eye. And I suspect that a greater knowledge of pantomime would have aided me, too, in recognizing when the characters were behaving as they were supposed to and when they were going their own way.

The Late Widow Twankey is also of particular interest for me because it's the only other Ferguson novel (alongside A Footman for the Peacock) written and set during World War II, and so it reflects somewhat on the themes and tone of that earlier novel. I love her description of the outbreak of war:

When war broke out, which it did on the very Sunday following the sale of the Durden's cow for a sack of beans, the village, thought Mrs. Beech, became a shade more ridiculous than usual, unless all villages were being rather unbalanced, for one couldn't entirely believe that Daisydown possessed the monopoly of eccentricity.

One circumstance perversely reassured her, and that was the singular amount of political and social graft that there seemed to be going about. For without one ascertainable qualification that anybody discoverable had ever heard of, the Hon. Thisbe became a Captain of W.R.A.F.'s in full uniform, and the Baron hurried about in staff officer's kit and a (presumably hired) car which developed deafening complaints whenever anybody so much as looked at it, as Alison once remarked to Mr. Prince Charming, and on one occasion had actually telescoped in the middle of the road, which apparently caused the Baron no regrets or apprehensions of any description. 'But then,' put in the grocer, Mr. Prune, 'he's such a very good-natured gentleman.'

And a bit later, there is a classic example of the stereotypically unflappable Brit making the best of bad situations:

But in common with so many of the rural communities of England, the Daisydowners continued to be profoundly unaware of the war, and when anything did happen which forced their attention to the fact that it was no longer peace-time, they turned it into stuff for jest; and as though providence itself were conscious that Daisydown needed special treatment, it sent to that village, or so it seemed to Mrs. Beech, but one sample of everything, of which they made their joke and passed on to the usual business of living. There was, for instance, one air-raid only which sent down one H.E. bomb that hit the Durden's kitchen garden squarely, a circumstance which delighted the widow who said that it made a natural pond (or au reservoir) at no cost, of which at the moment she stood sorely in need, and when it was followed by two incendiaries she lit the fire with one and toasted a kipper upon the other, and when they burnt themselves out exclaimed, 'These rotten German goods ain't made to last!' as she ran, gibbering, her sidecurls flapping, from one to the other.

It's ludicrous and bizarre, but great fun, and if this isn't quite Ferguson's most accessible novel, it should prove irresistible to anyone who (like me, clearly) has caught the Ferguson bug. Naturally, it's almost impossible to locate, and this isn't one of the novels we're releasing in October, but stay tuned. If the first three Ferguson titles are well received, we might be able to get round to more of her work. And in the meantime, I still have a few more of her novels to write about here…


  1. So jealous that you are getting your hands on all these (unless you manage to get everything published, of course!) And of course Dion Saffyn made an appearance in her novel "Brontes Went to Woolworths", so it's nice to know he exists in another part of her universe as well.

    1. I forgot that Dion made a cameo in Brontes, Erin--thanks for reminding me! I've been meaning to get round to re-reading that one as well.

  2. I have long wanted to see an English "Pantomime". From all I have read (a Rumpole Christmas story or two, Theater Shoes, I think, or one of those, D. E. Stevenson, and more) it seems to be a very ENGLISH sort of entertainment, with nothing in the US being anything like the same.

    And it sounds like one would need to understand it to "get" the Widow Twankey.

    The WWII one sounds interesting also.


    1. Yes, Jerri, I'd love to get a taste of a proper pantomime, if only to grasp Ferguson's novel a bit better!

    2. You and Andy could stay on in England until Christmastime?

  3. English pantomimes are always acted with a sort of mad earnestness, and determination both to make a joke of everything, but also to stubbornly/studiously ignore that anything is out of the ordinary. [At least, they were before they became vehicles for pop and soap stars to make money over the Christmas season], There are also catch phrases - 'It's behind you!' and 'Oh no it isn't'/'Oh yes it is' which have to be inserted. They are largely based on folk takes, so the selling of the cow for a sack of beans is the early part of Jack and the Beanstalk, and no doubt other events can be placed in their respective stories too. The 'business' with the car sounds nearer to part of the clown routine from a traditional circus, though.

    1. Thanks, Ruth, this is helpful. Maybe someday we'll be able to see a pantomime live, after we retire to England--ha!


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