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.