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Monday, February 22, 2010

Deep love and dark troubles: the “Red Pottage” of Mary Cholmondeley

My trip home from London was not as readerly as I had planned. My seat turned out to be next to a little girl whose questions to me never ceased from St Pancras to Gare de Nord. I soon gave up on the idea of reading and allowed myself to be interrogated. I was only slightly taken aback when she looked at me after a short pause and said, “What’s it like to have orange hair?” I said that I had always enjoyed it. So, it was for this reason that Mary Cholmondeley’s “Red Pottage” sat unread on my lap for the journey. Back at home; I have devoured it eagerly and with much enjoyment.

Red Pottage is a subversive and thoughtful novel that traces the fortunes in love and work of two closely bonded women of the fin-de-siecle. The plain but self possessed Rachel is mainly concerned with love. She is a woman of vast fortune, who has been through a formative period of poverty. Her misfortune is to fall in love, against the wiser counsel of all who know her, with a reforming philanderer whom she knows to have been involved in the most bizarre morality scandal that London society doesn’t yet know about. Rachel is a listening character – she is a magnet for confidences and a calm and intelligent presence. Her friend since the earliest days of childhood is the worldly delicate novelist, Hester. Hester is fragile of body and robust of mind. She has grown up under the wealthy and cosmopolitan tastes of an old aunt and at a young age has written a novel which has been acclaimed in every corner of intelligent society. The death of her aunt has forced her into residence at the parsonage of her self righteous and doctrinaire brother – the vicar of Warpington – in the aptly named “Middleshire”. Here she will battle against the constraints and pretensions of parochial society – but will she be able to write what is within her?

The text bristles with an array of superbly drawn characters. Our two heroines stand tall but around them are a host of others ranging from vacuous society ladies, insecure middle class women who feel envy and call it disapproval and displaced outsiders who will show more bravery than any reader would expect. Their men folk are no less varied. There are those that are weak minded and uncomprehending and care only for the avoidance of scandal. On the other hand – many of the male characters reach out to both Rachel and Hester and respect them as thinking women who are entitled to love and work as they wish. In particular the wonderful “Bishop of Southminster” deserves a special mention for kindness and intelligence – he has more than a hint of E. M. Forster’s “Mr Beebe” (from A Room with a View) about him. The Bishop is an important character because it is he who prevents “Red Pottage” from being a work of anti clericalism. Like Rachel and Hester, he is a character who shows that it is possible to live well and morally, without resorting to dogma.

It is easy to see how Red Pottage caused a scandal upon publication in 1899. It is deeply subversive of church, family and social conventions. Bubbling beneath the personal stories of its narrative are much grander themes – themes of women and society. It imagines a world where one who was “a born gentleman spoke to ‘em as man to man, not as if we was servants and childer”. It is a world where a woman can be as creative and more so than a man, and where the profound friendship between two women may prove to be stronger than any other social tie. It is a revolution indeed, and its power has not entirely been lost by time and social changes. Much of the force of Cholmondeley’s message still comes through in the text, even though the world we now live in is so different.

The narrative switches artfully between the two women, interlacing their stoires and themes. There is a powerful cinematic quality to the story and the novel would make excellent material for a film or a TV adaptation. The drama is heightened throughout by the dark shadow of a pact between the object of Rachel’s love and a male friend of Hester. It is a pact of death – but who will die and how? Red Pottage manages to be both dark and extremely funny. The height of Cholmondeley’s humour is undoubtedly an ill fated meeting of the Middleshire temperance society which takes unexpected turns under the vicarage roof and which left me laughing out loud. Cholmondeley writes with a knowing eye of the nonsense of her age. She satirises people mercilessly and illustrates what we all know: that we can all be unconscious comedians.

15 comments:

  1. Another VMC that I haven't come across. Sounds intriguing and I look forward to reading it.

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  2. This is one on my VMC wishlist (which to be honest, is quite extensive!) My friend recommended it to me last year and have been on the look out for it - glad you enjoyed it, sounds really good!

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  3. This sounds wonderful! I've wanted to read it for ages but typically it's hard to get hold of. I'm sorry you didn't get to read it on your train journey...though being questioned by children can sometimes be more amusing than a book!

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  4. thanks for your comments all - it is very good. It reminded me quite a bit of Middlemarch as I was reading. Booksnob - you are quite right about the child - it was hilarious and I enjoyed the book all the more when i got home!

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  5. I bought this back in December after hearing good things... mostly because I'd also heard it was difficult to find, so I snapped it up whilst I could!

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  6. This is a new title to me... and it sounds wonderful!

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  7. thanks for your comments Simon and JoAnn - I forgot to mention in the review that I felt that there was a patch of about 5 chapters about a third of the way in that went a bit flat - but it really does pick up again and the second half is really excellent. happy reading and thanks so much for your comments. Hannah

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  8. It's a book I should read. I love good writing and especially satire, which I think the French are good at? Very nice review.

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  9. This sounds fascinating - you have some wonderful reviews on here, of books that look right up my street. Oh dear, I feel a visit to Amazon coming on...

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  10. This sounds really interesting. I haven't heard of the book or author before, but it seems to be a book I would like, and since I'm hopelessly behind on my classics, I should read it sometime.

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  11. It was delightful to hear about your train experience. I enjoyed reading your review. I like the pictures you add to your posts too.
    Thank you for visiting Fresh Ink Books and becoming a follower. I appreciate every one of my readers.

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  12. Oh, you had me at your lovely description, but when you mentioned that you were reminded of Middlemarch in these comments, I was doubly hooked.

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  13. Thanks for your comment all -

    Book Dilettante - yes the French sure like their satire. This book is very satirical

    Lulu - welcome to my blog and thank you for your comment. My amazon wish list has been raging out of all control for years now.

    Hazra - Welcome and thank you! the problem with classics is that there are so many of them...

    Sandra - Thank you, the train was a hoot. I try to find good pictures that are connected with the book reviewed and/or that reflect my mood whilst reading. I failed to add a caption to the picture of a lady - it is Mary Cholmondeley herself.

    Bybee - Hi - and thank for your comment. It is very like Middlemarch - especially the parts of the story that focus on Hester. happy reading!

    Hannah

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  14. Just found your blog and am enjoying it. This books sounds great. I'll have to add it to my TBR list.

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  15. Am I being really annoying if I put a link to my website here? www.marycholmondeley.com

    Carolyn

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