Mary Cholmondeley is another or those neglected female writers of the early twentieth century, despite having published 13 novels. I had never heard of her or of her books until I read a post on Heavenali’s blog last June. I was intrigued enough to order a copy, which eventually came to the top of my tbr pile. It’s a strange book, and I wasn’t helped by the title or the cover of the print-on-demand copy that I received – a renaissance lad in a fetching flat hat, looking wan and interesting.
Despite all of this I enjoyed the book and thank Heavenali for drawing my attention to it.
Two young women must negotiate their early adulthood in a society that has no respect for their independence. The reading public were most shocked by the portrayal of two young women, unmarried and not guided by men so much as their principles. Rachel is an orphan, not especially good looking or celebrated by cultured society until she becomes very rich as a result of an inheritance. Hugh Scarlett is attracted to her, just at the moment when he has decided to end his adulterous liaison with Lady Newhaven.
Hester is Rachel’s great friend, but she too has experienced misfortune when her aunt died. Hester must live with her brother, a vicar. She is a published novelist and is determined to complete her novel while in the household. Hester’s brother, Mr Gresley, is a pompous and obnoxious man who mistakes his opinions for truth sanctioned by his position in the church.
Meanwhile Hugh Scarlett’s treachery has been discovered by Lord Newhaven who offers him an alternative to a duel: one of them will end his life within four months and the unfortunate one will be decided by picking the shorter taper. Lady Newhaven overhears them deciding on this process but fails to establish which one draws the short taper.
The story of Red Pottage reveals a huge amount of hypocrisy. The women suffer from it and from a lack of honesty by some of the most significant men in their lives. Much of the hypocrisy of these well-heeled people is very funny. The society women fancy themselves as cultured, sympathetic and intellectual. They are not.
The title refers to an incident from Genesis 25. Easau had been working in the field and is very hungry. His younger twin demands Esau’s birth right in exchange for some pottage (vegetable stew, so not an exotic meal). Esau holds his privilege so lightly that he agrees. The red of the pottage is thought to be a play on his name, which of course links to Hugh Scarlett, who towards the end of the novel find himself understanding, that he has sacrificed all for the worthless love of Lady Newhaven. He hopes his love for Rachel will redeem him. It does not work out as he intended.
Mr Gresley commits a crime against his sister, so grievous that she nearly dies. He does this because he claims that he knows better than her. But his destructive actions reveal his lack of true Christian feeling.
In contrast, Dick, who has returned from Australia, is much less constrained by society’s manners and plays an important part in challenging them, proving himself to be much more generous than Mr Gresley.
There are others who do well by the two young women, and eventually it all sorts itself out. But there has been much heartache, and uncovering of secrets before the conclusion.
The tension about who will kill themselves when the time comes is played out among the characters, and at times we are left asking plot questions (what did Lord Newhaven leave with the Bishop before he went to London, or why did he save Hugh Scarlett’s life) there is much entertainment at the behaviour of the self-important. Mr Gresley’s temperance meeting is disrupted because he had not taken enough note of one of the invited speakers. I laughed out loud at this early example of mansplaining when at a dinner party Rachel is addressed by ‘the great’ Mr Harvey.
“I trust, Miss West” said the deep voice of Mr Harvey revolving himself and his solitaire [diamond ring?] slowly towards her, “that I have your sympathy in the great cause to which I have dedicated myself, the emancipation of woman.”
“I thought that the new woman had effected her own emancipation,” said Rachel.
Mr Harvey paid no more attention to her remark than anyone with a theory to propound which must be delivered to the world as a whole.
“I venture to think,” he continue, his heavy lustreless eyes roaming to a standstill upon her, “that though I accept in all reverence the position of woman as the equal of man, as promulgated in The Princess, by the lion-hearted Laureate [Tennyson], nevertheless I advance beyond him in that respect. I hold” – in a voice calculated to impress the whole table – “that woman is man’s superior, and that she degrades herself when she endeavours to place herself on an equality with him.” (119)
At times Mary Cholmondeley’s style is as florid as Mr Harvey’s. These paragraphs provide a beat in a scene beside the river where Rachel knows she is about to receive and reject a proposal from a former lover.
It was an afternoon the secret of which Autumn and Spring will never tell to Winter and Summer, when the wildest dreams of love might come true, when even the dead might come down and put warm lips to ours, and we should feel no surprise.
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 king. (133)
Mr Tristram is confident that Rachel will accept his renewed attentions, despite having jilted her painfully some years before, when she was poor. We know better, and this overblown prose precisely conjures his self-importance and misplaced confidence. When Mary Cholmondeley celebrates the qualities of honesty, openness and loyalty her prose is more direct.
Mary Cholmondeley was born in Shropshire in 1859. She was the third of eight children of a vicar and the family moved around a great deal. She never married but lived with her sister in London and Suffolk after the death of their father. She wrote 13 novels. Red Pottage was considered a bit scandalous when it was first published in 1899 as it was seen as a satire on clergy and dealt with adultery and independent woman and their emancipation. She died in 1925.
Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley appeared in 1899. I read the print on demand edition by AEgypan Books (no dated). 283 pp. It was also published in the Virago Modern Classics series.
Heavenali’s review from June 2020
Also reviewed on Stuck in a Book blog in August 2011