Page 66 - PB Cat 1999-2021
P. 66

‘How does it happen? How does it happen?’ is the question asked at the beginning of this 1937 novel about Grace Scrimgeour, one of the thousands of ‘distressed gentlefolk’ who have spent their lives working as governesses and companions and, after they can no longer find work, end up in virtual penury. But Rachel Ferguson casts the finger of blame less at the men (since the system favoured them in all respects why would they seek to change it?) but at the thoughtlessness of the matriarchs who, if their daughters fail to catch a husband, do not teach them how to occupy themselves or to earn their own livings. ‘A family of your own, one saw, saved your face’ (p.117); without it young women had nothing.
From the 1870s to 1930s we see what happens to Grace in relation to her brother and sisters; she does not marry and can only write notes, run errands and occupy herself with sewing (‘Aggie was staring out of the window, Queenie working as if for a wager at a tapestry runner’ – hence our endpaper). Eventually Grace has to be a governess; only because a family is kind to her does she eventually find some limited independence and happiness.
Alas, Poor Lady is a very readable long novel which, without being didactic, teaches the reader a great deal about the lives of Victorian and Edwardian women.‘The fear of tomorrow and all the tomorrows filled her. The time there
Alas, Poor Lady
was! Whereas men filled it to the brim, 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?’
An early C20th bargello tapestry of the kind Grace might have stitched.
 NO 65
464pp PERSEPHONE BOOKS ISBN 9781903155554

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