Thursday, November 21, 2019

OLIVE HESELTINE (as JANE DASHWOOD), Three Daughters (1929) & The Month of May (1931)

Okay, it's certainly time to get cracking on writing about some of the considerable number of blog-worthy (or –unworthy) books I've read in the 20 years or so since I last regularly posted reviews. (Okay, maybe not quite 20 years, but it does seem like a long time.)

I don't know a lot about Olive Heseltine. Her first published book was Conversation (1927), which seems to be both a kind of history of the art of conversation and a guide, setting out rules for social interactions and examples from great conversationalists. In the U.S. it's available for perusal or downloading from Hathi Trust. She then published two novels using her pseudonym, the Austen-inspired Jane Dashwood, which seem to have been well-received, then fell silent until a self-published memoir in 1948 called Lost Content and, posthumously, a collection of essays. John Herrington found that she was divorced in 1920, thereafter single though keeping and writing under her married name. In later years, she lived in Abinger Common in Surrey. At any rate, having read these two novels, I can't help wishing she could have written more.

I've had these titles on my TBR list for ages, but only recently got round to them. Three Daughters, as might very well be guessed, traces the lives of three sisters from just verging on adulthood to middle age, each growing into very different lives as a result of their particular personalities and outlooks. We experience in the course of the novel the giddy (and often very funny) joys of youth, the ups and downs of romance, and the realities of marriage and heartbreak.

The girls' interactions are often pure delight:

The three girls boarded a bus that carried a red umbrella over the driver's head and went all the way from Baker Street to Piccadilly for a penny. They sat on the front seats and amused themselves by pointing out the people whom they thought they would resemble when they were middle-aged.

"That's me!" said Miranda, indicating a stout and red-faced woman pushing a perambulator, three children following behind; "a mother of four, and another loved-one at home as like as not."

"That's me!" said Judy, as a hook-nosed, double-chinned dowager sailed by in a barouche; "you bet I've got a title, a tiara and a Place!"

"And that's me!" cried Lydia, looking over the side of the bus where an agitated elderly figure, with her hat on one side, was scuttling across the road; "I expect I shall only have a small comic part—a sort of aunt."

"You're a Cassandra all right!" laughed Miranda; "it's Aunt Minnie!"

The aforesaid Aunt Minnie comes in for this description early in the novel:

Their Aunt Minnie's presence affected the inmates of Conyngham Place with that faint uneasiness which is roused by the humming of a mosquito. With none but benevolent intentions towards the whole human race, she nevertheless contrived to vex and depress every member of the family to whose interests she was unselfishly devoted.

And who could resist the girls' discussion of an early suitor:

"Do you really think him a snob?"

"Well, he's both a snob and an idealist," returned Miranda; "it just depends which way he goes. If it isn't a Duchess, it will be some kind of moral swell—some dreary but splendid person who has done something fearfully heroic—"

"You mean the kind of thing one sees in the papers—'Plucky woman rescues horse from burning stables'—'Girl's heroic plunge into Atlantic to save baby'—"

"Yes; or someone who has devoted her life to curing lepers—something dank but sublime."

I found the relations of the sisters with one another and with their challenging and manipulative mother quite believable, both in happy and unhappy moments. We also see the passage of time in England from the Boer War to the 1920s, and the changing fads and fashions of the times. I have to share this slightly long but rather wonderful description of life in the earlier years of the story:

Lady Pomfret belonged bone and marrow to that great period of England's prosperity which was subsequently so much derided. With the nineteenth century just drawn to its close, the age still clung to the Victorian traditions of decency, refinement and idealism. In tranquillity the lady graced the drawing-room; in security the horse ruled the road. Victorias, landaus and high-swung barouches, with liveried coachmen, and footmen sitting cross-armed on the box beside them, bore their wealthy occupants along the Ladies' Mile; high dog-carts spun along the country lanes; horse-buses ambled through the London streets. The trailing-skirted, tight-waisted ladies of the comfortable classes, who would have been horrified to have been labelled "women," controlled large staffs of low-paid servants; and while a very few advanced parents believed in the Higher Education and sent their daughters to College, the vast majority educated them on lines of feminine accomplishment and kept them at home, there to wait gracefully for the advent of the husband. Self-sacrifice, good manners and ignorance of the facts of life were the attributes most generally approved in young ladies. Over the conscience of the bulk of England Puritanism still retained its iron clutch; in society the presence of the chaperone was considered as indispensable as her offices were, in fact, superfluous. Between the sexes formality reigned; natural friendships between unmarried men and women were rare, impropriety of conduct unthinkable. Only a very small section of the advanced and intellectual attempted to put into practice the theory of the equality of the sexes; the vast majority agreed with Lady Pomfret, who, never having found any difficulty in getting her own way with men, strongly opposed the extension of the suffrage to women.

A friend of Heseltine's, in her Guardian obituary (which doesn't seem to be completely accurate in relation to some of her works), said of her, "There was something elegiac, a homesickness for the nineteenth century," but it's not quite clear from the above passage and from the last passage I'm quoting below, that "homesickness" is quite the word—certainly an interest in the period, and a flair for vividly evoking it, but one doesn't exactly get the sense that she wanted to live in such times.

At times the story in Three Daughters may be just a bit weighed down by the philosophizing of the characters, especially the poignant and well-read Lydia and her difficult loves. ("Suddenly the door opened and William said rapidly: 'Ladyship says will you kindly come into the drawing-room, as there's one or two people there?' 'Blow!' thought Lydia, putting down the Critique of Pure Reason.") But overall I found this novel hard to resist, and we reach some particularly touching moments when we meet, in the final scenes, some of the new generation now at the age the sisters were at the beginning, and see the girls all grown up and changed by life.

Obviously, I enjoyed the book, as I immediately put in an interlibrary loan request for Heseltine's second novel, The Month of May, a slightly more melancholy book, but still quite lovely. The tale of Mary, one of (again) three daughters, though in this case there's also a brother. Mary has been left behind at home while her siblings go off to make their own lives—Eleanor, a clever but somewhat chaotic, new-age-y novelist, Vivien, sensitive and spoiled and damaged by the loss of her first love in World War I, and Charles, a professional now entirely managed by his wife Eileen and becoming rather stuffy and conservative under her influence. Mary's destiny, however, seems to be to stay at home and care for their malingering, self-pitying mother and their kind, failing father, who have come to rely on her presence. (Sure, one might wonder why they're so dependent, since the family also has servants, but of course at this time period one could never have too many menials at one's beck and call!)

Someone at the Minneapolis
Public Library in 1931 had
elegant handwriting!

Part of the explanation for the position Mary occupies, too, is that she has been rather hopelessly in love, against her own best instincts, with a sort of charming ne'er-do-well, whose good friend has likewise developed an unrequited love for Mary. It all seems quite hopeless, and indeed The Month of May is perhaps a bit like F. M Mayor's The Rector's Daughter with a brighter wit and a pluckier sensibility. When I read it, I felt that it was probably a weaker novel overall than Three Daughters, but looking back a few weeks later I wonder if it might not end up being the more haunting one. At any rate, it's sad that Heseltine didn't continue writing—I would have quite liked to see where she got to in later novels.

In closing for now, I'll share one passage from Month which is entertaining. Mary's whiny mother is bemoaning the state of womanhood in the present day, and detailing the proper expectations for a "lady" in her own day:

"Ah yes!" exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby, with animation, "would that young women nowadays could have their rules by heart! To begin with"—ticking off each point on her fingers: "A lady must always be bien chaussée, bien gantée, bien coiffée. A lady should take an hour to get up and an hour to go to bed. A lady removes her stay-laces at night and puts them in again next morning. A lady does not perspire. A lady does not blow her nose in public. ('Five minutes before breakfast,' my Aunt Amelia used to say, 'should be enough for any Christian gentlewoman.') A lady keeps her eyes on the ground when she goes out walking. A lady never climbs a style before a gentleman. A lady does not eat cheese. A lady should know how to carve."

Which, despite the woeful state of humanity in late 2019, should at least make us grateful that we're not Victorian ladies!


  1. Of course, the name Lady Pomfret brought to mind the characters in Angela Thirkell's novels. I wonder did they ever cross paths? The time period does not seem to indicate such.
    I love the rules!

  2. Elizabeth Cary, Baroness Pomfret, (assuming my research is correct) was an ancestral grandmother of Olive Heseltine. It is tempting to think that this may be where the name came from and also that the book may be semi-autobiographical. I haven't yet read the book but perhaps someone else can answer whether or not that characters are loosely based on Olive's sisters.


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