Turns out Burns was onto something when he talked about the best laid schemes ganging aft agley – mine ganged aft agley all over the place. I had intended to devote August to reading through some of the Viragos I have piled in various places – and had even picked a modest six or seven to read. And I managed to finish… one. True, I am most of the way through another, but somehow August ran away from me almost entirely Viragoless. Still, the one I did read ended up being pretty brilliant – step forward Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley.
The novel was published in 1890, and it couldn’t really have been published in any other decade. There are elements of New Woman feminism alongside Lady Audleyesque sensation, and all washed down with wit. There is a certain decadence to the prose which is never over the top, recalling a period where three words could be used where one would have done – because sparseness is not the only approach to literature, and what ‘would have done’ is a paltry second-best to what ‘can be done’. This paragraph, for instance, adds nothing to the plot – but it is a delicious sidetrack which would doubtless have been edited out ten years later.
A kingfisher flashed across the open on his way back to the brook near at hand, fleeing from the still splendour of the sun-fired woods where he was but a courtier, to the little winding world of grey stones and water, where he was a jewelled king.
Virago insist in their blurb that the novel is about Rachel West and Hester Gresley, and ‘explores the ways in which two very different women search for fulfilment in a society bound by convention.’ I can understand how such a synopsis would cohere with Virago’s (admirable) publishing aims, but it does Red Pottage a disservice to summarise it in that manner – for it is really far more complex than that, as well as rather more entertaining.
Preparing for a George Gissing-type melancholy novel (I should mention now that I haven’t read anything by George Gissing – or, indeed, Lady Audley’s Secret, I’m just throwing around these references with no first-hand knowledge whatsoever) I was surprised when Red Pottage opens with neither Rachel nor Hester, but instead Hugh Scarlett. Scarlett is embroiled in an affair with Lady Newhaven, and Lord Newhaven challenges Scarlett to a duel, of a sort. They each take a taper – the one with the shorter taper must kill himself before the end of five months. Told you this was a sensation novel.
Except it is not simply a sensation novel. There’s quite a web running through the interrelations of characters, and it’s not long before we meet newly-rich Rachel West, a sensible and social girl who has endured years of poverty. She, in turn, is friends with Hester Gresley who, after having published an extremely successful novel, is now trying to write her second whilst living with her clergyman brother, his jealous wife, and their energetic children. These eight or so characters compose the principal cast – or at least those that are foremost in my mind a few weeks after finishing the novel.
Although the blurb talks about Hester and Rachel being very different, they seemed almost entirely identical figures to me – progressive, but with a firm sense of morals; artistic; loving. My favourite sections of the novel dealt with Hester and her brother’s family – she writing away whenever she had spare moments, and he unappreciative and unadvanced, while believing himself to be deficient in nothing. Any topic under the sun would be ‘thrashed out’ by him, and his judgement he considered final. As for his sense of humour, Cholmondeley pens a particularly delightful paragraph on the topic:
Why does so deep a gulf separate those who have a sense of humour and those who, having none, are compensated by the conviction that they possess it more abundantly. The crevasse seems to extend far inland to the very heights and water-sheds of character. Those who differ on humour will differ on principles. The Gresleys and the Pratts belonged to that large class of our fellow creatures, who, conscious of a genius for adding to the hilarity of our sad planet, discover an irresistible piquancy in putting a woman’s hat on a man’s head, and in that “verbal romping” which playfully designates a whisky and soda as a gargle, and says “au reservoir” instead of “an revoir.”(Shades of Mapp and Lucia, no?) And yet Cholmondeley is unswervingly fair in her portraits. Red Pottage is no attack on the church – indeed, there is a thread of faith through it which is done honestly and well. Rather, the novel contains (among many other things) an exposure of a certain type of clergyman, who is balanced out by a much more sensitive and sympathetic bishop. Even Rev. James Gresley is not solely a figure to be lambasted – his saving grace is the love he feels towards his children, which in turn is the only sort of love within Hester’s own novel which he does not consider overblown.
The conversations between James and Hester are amongst the chief delights of the novel. Jane Austen would not have spoken slightingly of them – some of the exchanges reminded me, in their linguistic delicacy and exactness, of that wonderful scene between Lady Catherine de Burgh and Elizabeth Bennett. Hester’s dialogue is always carefully inoffensive, and yet subtly demonstrates how far she is from agreeing with her brother’s values and pronouncements. To pick one example out of the air: ‘But from your point of view you were right to speak – as – as you have done. I value the affection that prompted it.’ I shan’t spoil the outcome of the relationship between Hester and her family, but I will mention that it involves one of the most moving deaths I have ever read about – and it is not even the death of a human.
Cholmondeley’s constant fairness can confuse, at times – simply because the more sensational aspects of the novel feel as though they require less complex characters. It would be tempting to view Scarlett as a cad and bounder, and a cowardly one at that, but Cholmondeley makes the reader question these assumptions:
But was he a coward? Men not braver than he have earned the Victoria Cross, have given up their lives freely for others. Hugh had it in him to do as well as any man in hot blood, but not in cold.It would be ridiculous to fault Cholmondeley for creating rounded characters, and I don’t intend to do so – only perhaps occasionally (only occasionally) her plot-lines are not quite so well rounded, and the consequent discord is a little unsettling.
I have done little justice to the overlapping and interweaving storylines of the novel, nor the wry humour which so often made me laugh aloud. Cholmondeley is an excellent observer of human nature, and (which is rarer) a generous one. Her generosity does not preclude laughing at traits and actions, but it does forbid pillory or scapegoating. Red Pottage is a rich, moving, funny, and deeply perceptive novel. I may only have managed to finish one Virago Modern Classic this August – but at least the one I finished turned out to be rather brilliant.