Rhoda Broughton (1840 - 1920) was one of the queens of the circulating library and I first learnt of her from that chronicler of the common George Orwell in his Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a misery tale of book shop assistant Gordon Comstock. Broughton’s book is by far the better with this proviso - keep her away from scenery. An ink from Harbin which I affect Rose Cyclamen would be suitable for her outpourings.
This is a good opening that gets a grip on you as firm as the staying of the era.
The ruling passion is strong in death, and therefore it is no wonder that Henry Etheredge, who through a life of fifty-six years has always postponed other people's pleasure and convenience to his own, should on his last day but one go on holding his wife s hand long after the posture it entailed upon her had become one of irksome fatigue.
The wife is twenty five years old, the husband fifty six and they have been married for eight years. She married him when she was seventeen and a half. He is a very wealthy man and some sort of major figure in Science and Literature, unspecified. His morbid grip which due to her bent posture over his bed is giving her severe back strain is but an emblem of his posthumous over reach.
He has something to say to her which will decide her fate after his death but first he lets her know that five years previously he had overheard a conversation in the garden during the night when he wandered out sleepless.
' I became aware that you and your companion were parting as lovers’
She does not start now—braced for the worst.
But we were parting !'
Her tone is scarcely one of apology; certainly not one of conscious guilt.
So I gathered.
'And from that day—five years and a month ago—to this, we have neither met nor written.'
There is no eagerness of asseveration in her words, no fevered hurry to convince ; only the statement of an undoubted and undoubtable fact.
‘I am aware of it.’
However that may be, there is a mutual assurance of respect:
' I have always respected you very much!'
The tribute sounds in her own ears almost an insult in its cold baldness, and his answer matches it.
'Thank you. I have always found you very civil and obliging.'
There has been no consummation in that relationship but simply to have heard the conversation makes him threaten to cut her out of his will unless she renounces a marriage to this man after his death. She cannot oblige for she still burns in her heart of hearts though she has not heard from him since that fateful night by the fountain in the circular garden.
So he dies and is buried and the will is read. She is replaced as residuary legatee by Etheredge’s older sister but she still has her settlement of £1000 a year, quite enough to install herself in a cottage in Richmond with only three servants to look after her and a year of widow’s weeds with a long black weeper and a widow’s cap. Richmond by the park she hopes will be a quite time for her to hope that her lover will seek her out. She has chosen this location, location because her friend Clarendon the deceased’s secretary's family resides there The two sisters Maybella and Flora eke out their exigous income and try to keep up with polite society. Broughton details very well the strategems of genteel poverty exercised by the ‘all right’ pair.
They are well-favoured young women, the younger one most so; and their armourplated figures, whaleboned into fashionable slimness, and carefully restrained fringes, make them fully deserve the encomium, which to them would seem the highest possible, of 'looking all right’.
Jane Etheredge knows their situation:
She knows, on their brother's authority, how narrow have been their means; and a pitying speculation as to how much of pinch and effort lies under their successfully achieved appearance of well-to-do all-rightness crosses her mind.
' It is not only rent and taxes, but everything to eat is so dear,' adds the younger sister. ‘One has to pay extravagantly for every sprig of parsley.'
It is the first time that the herb in question has presented itself to Mrs. Etheredge's mind as a serious article of commerce ; and at her look of bewilderment, as she says, ' But surely one can get through life without much parsley,' they all laugh.
The sisters are champion moochers admiring into possession many items. Broughton is witty and gentle about them, her brisk acerbity for which she was renowned landing on others in the novel. Do you mind coincidences? There’s not many and by the end there’s resolution. A greatly neglected and under-appreciated writer. I have gone straight on to Dear Faustina (1897) a novel which satirises the suffragette movement. It must be a matter of grievous distress to liberals that conservatives write better and hold up better without the staying of bien pensant support then or now.
Find it at the game and the candle
(a clean epub by the way)