It’s great to find that a book blog can have influence. Dean Street Press have collaborated with Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow blog to republish lesser known British women novelists and memoirists of the Twentieth Century. Dean Street Press says
The Years 1910 – 1960 were an unprecedented and prolific era for female authors, documenting – eloquently, humorously, poignantly (or frequently all of the above) – the social change, upheaval and evolving gender roles of a volatile era.
I have been sent two of the series to review by the publisher. Here are my thoughts on A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.
Rachel Ferguson (1892-1957) was a suffragette and after the First World War published 12 novels among other works. Furrowed Middlebrow is republishing three: Evenfield (1942) and A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and A Footman for the Peacock (1940). She wrote for Punch magazine.
Given it is published under the middlebrow banner one should not expect great literary experiences from this novel. One might expect, indeed, that given the time of its publication, this novel would be intended as a diversion from the significant national events. But what you get is not that either. The author reveals the attitudes of the fading landed classes and their circumstances in the 1930s. Barely recovered from the Great War they appear to be sleep walking into the next. Of course, readers today have the benefit of hindsight, not least into the social upheavals accelerated by the conflict. These upheavals included the demise of the large country house such as Delaye, the centre of this story.
At one level, it is a mystery or even a ghost story concerning the footman and the peacock. This aspect of the novel rather takes over towards the final pages as the local vicar and the youngest daughter of Delaye inquire into past events. This mystery rather distracts from the reactions to war that has just been declared.
The Roundelay family is a large one and they live in a very large house, Delaye, but they and the house have all seen better times. The house is in a poor state of repair and the gardens neglected. The peacock is the only survivor of a more glamorous past. The family has very little money, no car for example. Yet they maintain the superior attitudes of their class. For example, they have to make complicated arrangements with tradesmen so that orders can be delivered, passing from bike to bus to cart to van. They are energetic in resisting the consequences of the declaration of war. The bother of attending to the blackout of their many windows is superseded by the threat of evacuees billeted upon them.
For a short book there are rather a lot of characters. The family include Edmund, his wife Evelyn and their three children: Angela who is frequently sent to live with relatives, Margaret down to earth and running the guides and their brother Stacey who studies land maintenance. In addition three of Edmund’s five sisters and a cousin are also resident. In such a household the servants are worked hard since members of the family cannot even make themselves a cup of tea: cook, housemaid and the dependable Musgrave the butler. The ancient family nurse no longer has all her marbles and still occupies an uneasy place between family and servants.
The characters provide plenty of entertainment. Nursie throws her dinner tray out of the window, angry that she has not been served enough meat. She unwittingly protects the family from the billeting officer. Two of the sisters do not talk to each other. They enact a pantomime of ignoring each other every evening as they descend to dinner.
The self-absorption of the Roundelay family, their efforts to maintain their past social position and their ignoble response to the worsening situation in Europe and to the outbreak of war are robustly held up to criticism here.
One can’t help wondering how typical their reactions were, however. Few people would have welcomed evacuees, despite the fears of bombardment. People do leave necessary arrangements to the last minute, causing shortages of blackout material, and this seems to be human nature. People are unrealistic and draw on their experience, I this case of the previous hostilities, when the Home Front was spared the horror of the trenches.
The dreadful fate of the running footman, (a servant who ran in front of the coach to clear its way of obstacles and people) sits awkwardly beside all this realism. He died in 1792 and is reincarnated in the peacock. A rather arcane and sinister running song has been learned by Evelyn, the lady of Delaye, who appears not to notice that the quarry is not animal, but human.
The character of the bird is rather unpleasant and malign. He has a dreadful shriek. He is not afraid to peck and wound people who do things he doesn’t like. And Angela observes him in the moonlight, perhaps in communication with the enemy.
Round the corner from the shrubbery the peacock swept, taking the stage as she watched: Slowly, deliberately – or were peacocks always leisured in the process? – he displayed himself and paraded the lawn, sometimes pausing to look at up at the sky.
Waiting? Listening? The exact word elided her until it came with an impact of incredulity and a dismay that was not lessened by her own self-ridicule.
Guiding. No. Signalling. (139)
The peacock’s only friend is the servant girl, one of a long line from the same village family.
I experienced Rachel Ferguson’s writing much as I might have been struck by a 6th former, bright, clever, sparkling wit, but not yet polished. This novel has so many irrelevant byways that I was irritated at times because they blunted the criticism of the unpatriotic attitudes. We get the BBC, the tabloid press, a mysterious village called Rohan, the history of the Roudelay family, people’s reactions to the last war. It’s all very merry, but also tiresome.
Yet there is charm and the novel captures that time when uncertainty descended upon the rural population. War was an unknown quantity and social mores could be expected to change, but no one knew in what way.
Despite my reservations about this novel it’s a grand project to reissue women’s writing from the past. We note that both Persephone Books and Virago Modern Classics have republished Rachel Ferguson’s novels.
A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson; first published in 1940 and reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books in 2016. 206pp
Furrowed Middlebrow is the blog of Scott in California, who reviewed this book back in September 2013, when the new imprint was just a distant ambition. Here is that review.
Alas Poor Lady has been reissued by Persephone Press, and is described on their website here.
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