Spanning a period of over sixty years (1870-1936), Alas Poor Lady is the story of the Scrimgeours, a typically large Victorian family: Captain Scrimgeour and his wife, Charlotte, have nine children, only the last of which is the long-desired male heir. Alas Poor Lady focuses on four of their daughters – Mary, Agatha, Queenie, and particularly Grace, the youngest. They’re the ones who fail to accomplish the task they were trained for ever since they were small children: to secure a husband who would support them. At a time when upper-class women were expected to depend on men, and when for a lady to earn her own living meant social disgrace, the fate that waits them is a very precarious one.
Alas Poor Lady is a novel full of quiet anger. The tragedy of these women’s lives is not only a matter of personal void or a lack of fulfilment, but mainly a socioeconomic descent that happens through no fault of their own. They’re helpless, yes, but only because they’re made helpless. Some of them wanted things other than marriage and children, but what opportunities were there? We watch them try to find alternatives, and we watch their every effort be curtailed for the sake of social appearances. The novel’s anger, then, is not so much directed at anyone in particular as it is at a social structure that only took men into account.
I worry I’m making Alas, Poor Lady sound like a social treatise, when it is in fact a very engrossing and effective piece of storytelling. It is a social novel, though it was written in 1937, which is to say, after the fact. Possibly Rachel Ferguson felt that the elderly ladies whose only hope lay in charities for distressed gentlefolk deserved to have their story told – and she tells it in a sensitive, perceptive, and very humane manner. Because we follow Grace and her sisters for such a long period, because we get to know them so intimately, watching their growing isolation and impoverishment as they age hurts all the more. The depth of the characterisation, then, is one of this novel’s greatest strengths. There’s also the fact that even though the story unfolds predictably and with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, I couldn’t keep myself from eagerly turning the pages. The book is a long one, as I said, but I read it in a single day.
Alas, Poor Lady also explores something that I don’t think I’ve read about very often at all: the psychological effects of a socioeconomic downfall. It’s perhaps easy to be unsympathetic towards the pain of those who were rich and are now poor, especially when we compare it with the pain caused by a lifetime of poverty and precarious living conditions. But this is a comparison that I don’t want to make right now – because social inequality aside, this psychological adjustment does exist, and I think it’s worth examining.
The Scrimgeours sisters are not necessarily snobs, and their pain at suddenly being caught in poverty should not be dismissed as pride. It’s just that they grew up in a world in which these things Did Not Happen – because they didn’t fit into people’s mental picture, and because when they did happen, they were never talked about. So more than just poverty, their new circumstances require a readjustment of all their beliefs about the world. Ironically, not long before her death and her daughters’ subsequent downfall, Mrs Scrimgeour refuses to contribute to a charity for distressed gentlefolk, on the grounds that “respectable people” will always have friends and family to count on.
But sadly, friends and family often go as soon as one’s money and social prestige are gone. The married Scrimgeours sisters do help their single sisters at first, but as the years pass they begin to resent them, even thought it could easily have been them in their position. Whether or not they realise this remains unclear. And Grace, Mary and Queenie (Agatha follows a different path, but I won’t spoil it for you) know they’re burdens on their families—which is yet another source of pain.
Another thing I loved about Alas, Poor Lady was how sophisticated its understanding of gender was. The complexity and perceptiveness with which it portrays gender socialisation is up there with that of my very favourite books (like, say Tender Morsels, The Fox Woman or Tipping the Velvet). This probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it somehow did, a little bit. 1937 was quite a long time ago, but then again, Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, and countless others were writing long before that. But let me give you a concrete example of what I mean: Grace and Charles Scrimgeour, the two youngest children, are close during their nursery years. Charles is initially a quiet, sensitive, and physically weak child (he has to wear iron braces on his legs until age seven), and he’s drawn to his slightly older sister. He enjoys imaginative and quiet activities, such as playing dolls with her, and such is his naivety about the Ways of the World that, when caught, he freely admits this to his father. Charles has all the “girliness” beaten out of him, of course, and is taught, in short, not to see women as equals, potential companions, or human beings. What follows is an inevitable estrangement between him and his sister, and watching it happen broke my heart.
Rachel Ferguson does not shy away from mentioning other social issues that were direct consequences of Victorian patriarchy: the fate of a maid who gets pregnant, for example, is put side by side with the fate of the boy who impregnates her (“these things were almost always the girl’s fault”, Mrs Scrimgeour thinks); Georgie, the first Scrimgeour girl to get married, resents her mother for the rest of her life for never having given her the slightest hint of what to expect from her wedding night. And so on. She certainly does not hesitate to debunk the romanticised, naïve, and misinformed notions people sometimes seem to have about the past as a time when families stuck together through thick and thin and social problems were mainly absent.
Alas, Poor Lady is undoubtedly a sad book, but it’s written in a way that doesn’t invite us to pity the characters; rather, it challenges us to face the social circumstances that trapped them – a not at all useless exercise even in today’s world, despite the many positive changes when it comes to women and work.
A few months ago I read Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolsworth, which I very much enjoyed. But Alas, Poor Lady I more than enjoyed: I loved it wholeheartedly. It’s in another league altogether, and I have little doubt it will make my end of the year list of favourites. What a remarkable writer Ferguson was, and what a pity that most of her work is now out of print. I’m very grateful that these two books at least were rescued from obscurity.
Mary and Arabella had hurried home exploding with laughter. In common with nearly all other young women of the time, they were, without suspecting it, completely different people among themselves from what they were in the society of men. In those rare, sisterly minutes, they were, in short, human beings.Other opinions:
The fear of tomorrow and all the tomorrows filled her. The time there was! Yet men filled it to the brim, in work which brought them money or fame and in social engagements which never failed, or there was the club; even little Charlie was having a future built for him already that would put him beyond the reach of ennui. Whereas a woman’s life was one of eternal waiting: to be taken out, called on, danced with or proposed to. How had it originated, this division of opportunity?
‘It’s lack of imagination, I suppose, that makes men so unlike women.’
It might be that, but it was an eternal something else upon which one couldn’t put one’s finger: the inevitability with which the woman was reduced, even in fiction, to tears or meekness, the way in which it was the man who dictated terms, delivered ultimata. ‘Don’t make me scenes or you will lose me’ (when the cause of her tears, his version of the ‘scene’, was his own callousness). ‘You will not see that man anymore’ (and she gladly recognised a jealously which, if exhibited by herself, would call down a sermon upon her head). Men, of course, expected not only to have things their own way, but all ways at once, as Nana said. And they got it.
Grace recognised it as not the least of their sickness that about their common trouble there was a conspiracy of silence. One suspected that these girlhood friends had had no chance of marriage but the healing of discussion was denied them; that, and the stupendous relief which would have been the pooling of a flaming resentment and the open expression of a frightened, mounting grief. Appearances must be kept up, even among confidants, in private. Sometimes their whaleboned resistance very nearly broke down. But never quite. Pauses in the conversation would be filled by the quick, furtive glance in which revelation and confession hung in the balance. Then the danger passed. Relieved, unshriven, profoundly regretful, they talked of other things.
They contrived to meet and live with a smile, martyrs sustained by no principle, dying by inches for no cause at all.
The B Files
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