Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins

Although I love all the books on my 50 Books You Must Read list, I freely admit that some are better than others, as regards literary merit.  Some are simply on there because they are incredibly fun and a delight to read – and Herbert Jenkins’ 1918 novel Patricia Brent, Spinster is among that number.

One of the things I love most about literary discussion online – be it on blogs or email groups or whatever – is that occasionally an unlikely novel will take centre stage.  As I read in a sage review somewhere (I forget where), somebody in the blogosphere always seems to be discovering Barbara Comyns.  Ditto with Shirley Jackson, and similar unexpected enthusiasms have been launched for books like Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington, Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters, and (of course) Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I don’t remember quite where I first heard of Patricia Brent, Spinster, but I do know that last year lots of people in my Yahoo group were reading it, and that Thomas compared it to Miss Hargreaves. So it was one of them.  Right, let’s get onto the book itself, shall we?

Although officially I disapprove of lying, I love it when characters lie in books and TV shows – especially when they do it badly, or it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.  It’s such a great device, perhaps because, rather than dealing with an enemy or antagonist, the victim has caused their own chaos – and thus must steer things back onto the right path.  It’s the starting point of Miss Hargreaves, and it is the starting point of Patricia Brent, Spinster.

I had assumed that Patricia Brent would be in her dotage – such are the connotations of ‘spinster’ – but in actual fact she is only in her early 20s.  Thus she is rather outraged when she overhears the older residents of her boarding-house talk pityingly about her being 27 and alone.  As Jenkins writes later in the novel:

A book could be written on the boarding-house mind, I think.  It moves in a vicious circle.  If someone would only break out and give the poor dears something to talk about.
Well, this is precisely what Patricia does.  Without giving it much thought, beyond the triumph of the moment, she announces to the assembled ladies and gents that she is off for dinner with her fiancée.  Her plan is simple – she will take a taxi to a fancy restaurant, eat alone, and return having scored a point.  Of course, she couldn’t have predicted that two of the women would find out where she would be eating, and follow her there…

Unable to admit to the lie, Patricia takes a different step – one which severs any attachment the novel might have had to real life – and plonks herself down at the table of a man eating alone, whispering to him to play along.  Rather than look startled or call the manager (as you or I might do), he is game – and they have rather a fun evening.

Peter Bowen is the man in question, an officer and a gentleman (or something like that), and – would you believe it? – he falls in love with her.  The rest of Patricia Brent, Spinster follows her reluctant realisation that she loves him too, and… well, you can probably guess everything that happens.

Not a moment of it is plausible from beginning to end – and, because it is consistently absurd, it is a total delight.  A likely incident would have ruined the whole thing, just as a moment of pathos deflates a farce.  Nobody seems to speak or behave as anybody outside a novel would, but Jenkins has created a masterpiece, in his own way.

You might not expect to love something of this ilk, but I defy you not to be charmed by it.  Along the way we meet Patricia’s aunt, her oft-stated ‘sole surviving relative’, who is every bit as interfering as you’d hope.  Bowen has a kind, wise, witty sister of the sort which cheerfully cluttered up the Edwardian era; Patricia’s political employer (she is a secretary) has a simple-but-honest father.  Nothing here is too original, but all is wonderful – and the writing is just as fun.  This sort of thing:

Mr. Cordal grunted, which may have meant anything, but in all probability meant nothing.
Oh, I loved it.  It’s a breath of fresh air, and as abundantly silly and heart-warming as you could possibly desire.  There are quite a few secondhand copies available (I got mine, with its bizarre dustjacket, for £1 in Felixstowe) but it’s also free on Kindle.  I’m not the first to cry the joys of Patricia et al, but I am among its most vociferous supporters.

31 thoughts on “Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins

  • March 3, 2014 at 9:57 pm
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    Oh my this sounds wonderful. I have to have it. *hurries off to Abebooks*

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:27 am
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      Definitely a good idea to get there first ;) Hope you enjoy it!

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:28 am
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      The cover is interesting – I saw a version of it on someone's blog where the whole thing was white, rather than making the background black and drawing lines around the eyes… very curious.

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:30 am
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      I do hope you like it, Claire! I think you will – if you remember that it's definitely towards the light and frothy end of the spectrum :)

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:30 am
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      It's such a weird cover! I love that someone approved it…

  • March 4, 2014 at 1:58 pm
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    Sounds delightfully Wodehousian. I think a download to my iPod is in order, so I will have something sensational to read on the train — I mean streetcar.

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:31 am
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      It's Wodehouse taking itself a *tiny* bit more seriously, I suppose. Hope you enjoy it, do report back!

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:32 am
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      Thanks Clara – what a great title! I have yet to read ANY LMM, and this would be an amusingly unorthodox place to start.

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:32 am
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      Hurray! (I do feel a *little* bad that my copy came from your home turf… and for only £1!)

  • March 4, 2014 at 8:17 pm
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    It sounds fabulous, my copy is on the way and I can't wait to read it. Thank you so much for recommending!

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:33 am
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      Lovely, Terri! Whenever I see a boarding house novel I think of you, and you've definitely make me look out for them :)

  • March 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm
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    It is excellent. Patricia and Peter are delightful and the other characters -from the wife of Patricia's employer to her fellow lodgers – are funny and eccentric. It's lovely to see a dustjacket as I have only the e-book. I think (but can't look it up now) that Herbert Jenkins wrote other books -detective stories? – and was a publisher. I suspect that PB Spinster is his finest hour.

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:33 am
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      They are delightful, aren't they? It's all so fun. I've seen his name around a bit (and not just as a publisher) – the author of Bindle? Binkle? which I assumed was a dog, but might be a detective…

    • October 22, 2014 at 4:30 pm
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      Bindle is a Cockney type character. Pretty amusing. I did enjoy one of the Bindle stories where his factory goes out on strike, and his wife calls the other wives out for a strike of their own.

  • March 5, 2014 at 3:34 am
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    You know I have a hard time with whimsical, but this one hits every note perfectly. I think that those who think this may not be their cup of tea might be pleasantly surprised.

    • March 5, 2014 at 8:34 am
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      I agree! It was hard to describe it in a way that would make it seem appealing to literary types.

  • March 5, 2014 at 3:24 pm
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    I see what you mean about the cover – my blog has a picture of the white-background version – it is rather bizarre in any form. I spent a few moments trying to match up eyes to appropriate characters – a mild form of amusement, to be sure!

    You can't tell me you don't know Bindle? Bindle is NOT a dog, nor a detective. He is a working class moving man, and chock-full of pithy and wise observations about human nature and life in general. I love Bindle! Please search him out immediately, and acquaint yourself with his many stories. I'm sure he's online, and in "paper" books as readily available as our friend Patricia. I have The Bindle Omnibus, and I dip into it quite frequently for happy diversion when life gets too complicated in the real world.

    Rather like Wodehouse but just different enough to keep it interesting – a shade more seriousness and not so farcical. Bindle very decidedly trumps Brent, in my opinion.

    • June 17, 2015 at 11:07 pm
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      I now have about four Bindle books but have not read any of them! I’m excited by your enthusiastic recommendation :)

  • March 7, 2014 at 6:31 am
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    This sounds like such fun! Rather like the bookish equivalent of a screwball comedy, and who can resist those? Have downloaded it for my nook. :)

    • June 17, 2015 at 11:07 pm
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      Yayyyy!

  • June 19, 2014 at 12:33 pm
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    I know I'm way behind on this, but thank you for recommending Patria Brent, Spinster. I just finished it and thought it was so much fun. I really couldn't put it down. The ending wasn't a surprise but I didn't care. It was just what I needed after a trying few weeks.

    • June 17, 2015 at 11:08 pm
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      So glad you liked it, Joan, as much as I did! And it really is a great resource for difficult times.

  • November 12, 2014 at 2:49 pm
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    Dear Simon, belated thanks from me too on the recommendation. Really enjoyed it. Perfect rainy afternoon reading, and it doesn't drag at all. Clearly I am now going to have to find Bindle!

    • June 17, 2015 at 11:10 pm
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      So glad you liked it, Katrina! But, indeed, how could you not?

  • June 17, 2015 at 7:27 pm
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    Oops – commenting on the correct blog now. I’ve read it now and LOVED it – review to come at the weekend!

    • June 17, 2015 at 11:07 pm
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      Oo, excellent! Can’t wait for your review :)

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