Tag Archives: hypocrisy

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

I’m doing a fair bit of rereading novels recently, including all of those by Elizabeth Taylor – at a snail’s pace and out of order, but with great pleasure.

At Mrs Lippincote’s is Elizabeth Taylor’s first published novel, and it appears that it was written when it was unclear when the war would end. The war is the background to the events here, but no direct mention is made: mention of ‘for the duration’ is about as far as it goes. Readers at the time would have been familiar with the meagre food (a supper of tinned pilchards on toast, for example) and the countless small deprivations required of everyone. Above all, people found themselves having to live in places they had not chosen. 

At Mrs Lippincote’s

This is a novel about displacement: the title gives us a hint to this effect. Everyone is displaced. Julia Davenant, her husband, son and a cousin arrive to live in the house of Mrs Lippincote, who has rented it to Roddy Davenant. Mrs Lippincote has recently been widowed and now she is living down the road in a hotel with her daughter. The Squadron, its leader, men and wives, are all displaced to this unnamed town. The cousin, Eleanor, writes to Reggy, a former boyfriend who is in a pow camp in Germany. Mr Taylor, known to Julia in London as a maitre d’, has turned up in this town running a club in a bungalow. 

It is also a novel about honesty. Julia, married to Roddy and mother of Oliver, is revealed as uninterested in conventions. She doesn’t care very much to follow normal rules but lives according to her own instincts. 

Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalisations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s. (26)

We might feel rather sorry for Roddy in this, for he expected to mould her when he married her. She frequently makes him anxious that she will show him up with by not behaving appropriately. 

Elizabeth Taylor often includes a child in her novels, and she is rather good at them. Oliver is seven years old and rather a precocious child.

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words. […] With impartiality, he studied comic papers and encyclopaedia, Eleanor’s pamphlets on whatever interested her at the moment, the labels on breakfast cereals and cod liver oil, Conan Doyle and Charlotte Brontë. (14-15)

He had the capacity to enter into a book and live it, so that looking out of his new bedroom window at a girls’ school he can imagine that it is Lowood and that he will have burnt porridge and unclean milk for breakfast. He is able to hold conversations with the Squadron Leader about books, and especially about Charlotte Brontë. In the way of children he can be very literal. 

The Squadron Leader is an interesting character. It emerges that he is perceptive about the men under his command, but that he doesn’t stand on ceremony or masculine bravado. Like Oliver he is a reader and in addition he knits.

Against the different kinds of honesty of these three characters we have Eleanor, Roddy Davenant’s cousin who lives with them. She is in love with Roddy, but when she takes up a job as a teacher and becomes involved with a socialist group, (through the woodwork teacher) she finds it necessary to hide her activities from Roddy and Julia. The reader is continually aware that she thinks she would be a better wife to Roddy than Julia is. Her letters to the prisoner of war are likewise not honest in their motives or contents. 

But the biggest hypocrite turns out to be Roddy, as the Squadron Leader knew. Here is a small example of his dissembling.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (127)

Elizabeth Taylor

This was her first published novel, but Elizabeth Taylor was already showing herself to be a very accomplished writer. Look again at the quotation about Julia above. Note the list in parenthesis of things that Julia did not take for granted: that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers. It’s a safe enough list of examples, but through the novel Julia is proved right in not taking each of them for granted. 

Her descriptions of people are always illuminated by small details: Eleanor’s pamphlets, Roddy’s change of demeanour, Mrs Lippincote’s hat, and so on. Humour threads through the novel, humour and wry observation.

And the story is beautifully crafted. Here’s a moment from the first chapter which turns out to be significant but is only given the slightest emphasis. Julia is in her bedroom, surrounded by suitcases on their first evening in the house. She was searching in a trunk for handkerchiefs.

Oh, God! Of course, they were not there. She found, however, some talcum powder and a packet of envelopes which she needed.
As for a handkerchief … sniffing miserably, she had begun to rummage in the pockets of Roddy’s greatcoat. She did this aloofly, for husband’s pockets, since they were the subject of music-hall jokes, were always to be scorned and avoided. He did not apparently, carry handkerchiefs. “Now what are you up to?” he had asked, coming into the bedroom with yet another case. “My dear Julia, this trunk! You dive like a mole and leave disorder in your train.” (6)

Or notice this turning point following a party, which Roddy was claiming was “a damned good party”

“Yes,” she said gravely. She took up some empty bottles and went out. She had been angry with him on many occasions, impatient often, never grave. (85)

The novel ends as Julia and Roddy leave Mrs Lippincote’s house, he has been redeployed by the Wing Commander. The husband and wife’s roles have been reversed; he has been shown to cause disorder, and she is the competent one who will decide how they manage in the future.

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1945. I used the edition published in 1988 by in the Virago Modern Classic series. 215pp

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two first novels, a post about The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, which noted some similarities between these two first novels. (May 2013)

Recent re-readings of novels by Elizabeth Taylor include

Reading Palladium again (September 2022)

Rereading A View of the Harbour (February 2022)

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

A conversation with another reader led me to Mansfield Park. She said that she had picked it up again after many years and found that it was a rewarding experience. I decided to have another look too. Many questions remained from my first reading. Why is the novel named after a house? What was so dreadful about the young people enjoying theatricals? Is Fanny Price a prig? Is it Jane Austen’s most boring book? Would it be worth rereading?

Of course it was worth rereading. Jane Austen’s books are all worth reading countless times. You will always find new things in them. I can’t remember when I last (or first) read Mansfield Park, but it wasn’t within the last 14 years. I know because I have kept a log of all the books I read since April 2006.

Mansfield Park

This novel was published in 1814, the first book she wrote after she became a published writer. Sense and Sensibility had appeared in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813. 

The story follows Fanny Price, brought from Portsmouth at age 10 to her aunt’s house, Mansfield Park, which is in rural Northamptonshire. She grows up with her four Bartram cousins, a fragile and quiet young person, happy to avoid the spotlight and befriended only by her cousin Edmund. Sir Thomas Bartram is called away for more than 12 months to his plantations on Antigua, taking his spendthrift elder son with him. While he is away Mary and Henry Crawford come to stay at the nearby vicarage, with their sister who is married to the clergyman, Dr Grant. The Crawfords have come from London and bring gaiety and colour to life in the big house. Tom Bartram returns to England before his father and when he returns to Mansfield Park he is followed by Mr Yates, whom he met at Weymouth. This young man has ‘habits of fashion and expense’. He brings with him a longing to resume amateur theatricals, cut short by a family death at his previous visiting place. Fanny opposed the play, seeing all its dangerous potential and then observing the behaviour of the actors. 

The rehearsals for Lover’s Vow are interrupted by the return of Sir Tomas Bartram, who is horrified to find that his family have indulged in such an activity, which might compromise the reputation of one daughter, Maria, currently engaged to a wealthy neighbour.

Henry Crawford turns his attentions to Fanny, intending to make her fall in love with him, but finds that he falls in love with her. Everyone is in favour of the match, except Fanny who steadfastly refuses his attentions. She has observed his behaviour towards women, stoking the rivalry between the sisters Julia and Maria, encouraging Maria when she was already engaged to Mr Rushworth. The reader knows that on top of her understanding of Mr Crawford, Fanny loves Edmund, who is caught in the seductive coils of Mary Crawford. 

Her uncle sends Fanny back to Portsmouth to reacquaint herself with her family. While she is away disaster strikes the Bartrams: Tom falls gravely ill, Maria (now a married woman) runs off with Mr Crawford, and Julia elopes with Mr Yates. Fanny is needed at Mansfield Park where he judgement of Mr Crawford and her stance on proper behaviour is seen as justified. It ends happily.

Fanny Price

Fanny Price is often referred to as a prig, someone who is smugly self-righteous and narrow-minded. I was struck on this reading by how the action revolves around her, without her involvement. She joins the household, she bears the taunts and barbs of her second aunt (Mrs Norris) and the neglect by most of the family. She is almost omitted from the visit to Mr Rushworth’s estate. The young people tour the grounds and she is quickly abandoned by Edmund and Mary, witnesses the flirtation of Henry Crawford and Maria Bartram, and notices the display of jealousy by Julia. 

Being quiet, compliant, passive, guided by the men of the family, useful to her aunt Bartram, Fanny was all that was seen as good in young women in the early 19th Century. Yet it is possible to make a case that Fanny displays feminist behaviour, for Fanny is defiant in the face of Mr Crawford’s marriage proposal. He appears to be everything a penniless young woman should hope for: landed, rich, accomplished, true he is rather short. But he is a good horseman, and an obliging companion, especially to women. Fanny sees beyond his appearance and cannot respect this man. She makes up her own mind, refuses to be guided by her uncle, or seduced by wealth (as Maria is in her marriage to the luckless and dim Mr Rushworth). She embodies sincerity and an ability to distinguish between appearance and hypocrisy on the one hand, and truth and sincerity on the other. In standing up for herself she is neither priggish nor passive.

She is shocked by Mary Crawford’s light-hearted dismissal of the role of the clergy, shocked because this is Edmund’s chosen profession, and she displays disrespect and lack of consideration to Edmund. And shocked because Fanny values good clergymen. She does not support the idea of the theatricals because she can see the dangers to which it may expose the young people. She is right; Henry Crawford teases Julia by taking on the role of Maria’s lover. These two rehearse their scenes to excess, and often in private. 

Through Fanny’s eyes we can see that the Crawfords bring, from London, a love of display, money, and an emphasis on appearance. When Maria is known to have run off with Henry Crawford, Mary hopes that it can all be covered up and remain a secret. This attitude appals Edmund and he immediately gives up the idea of marriage to her. For him, as for Fanny, the shame is in the act, not in the discovery of it.

And we see the chaotic family from which Fanny escaped when she returns for a couple of months to Portsmouth. Her mother is coping with too many children, her father is uncouth. Her brothers are noisy and quarrelsome. The maid is not up to her responsibilities and Mrs Price is unable to teach her to do better. The household is a stark contrast to the orderliness and quiet of Mansfield Park.

And throughout the 48 chapters Mrs Norris has been behaving with great toxicity. She has indulged the two girls, exploited every occasion to her own advantage and taken every opportunity to put Fanny down. Sir Thomas has begun to see her hypocrisy when he returned from Antigua, surprised that she had not exerted her influence to prevent the theatricals. One of her many meannesses was to deny Fanny a fire in her attic rooms. Even as she defies Sir Thomas in his wish for her to marry Henry Crawford, she is touched to discover that he has countermanded Mrs Norris’s order and henceforth she will have warmth in her rooms. 

By the end of the novel those that conduct their relationships through hypocrisy and deceit, or by valuing appearance over substance, or who do not value the natural setting of the countryside, its avenues, wildernesses, prospects, these people have been found wanting. Mansfield Park and its rather intimidating owner stand for proper behaviour, as in propriety, for genuine unselfishness, consideration of others and orderly life. London and Portsmouth serve as contrasts to its gentle manners.

Mansfield Park – the house

It is the representation of these values that led Jane Austen to name the book after the house. And any well-informed reader of the time would have been aware of the Mansfield judgement of 1772 in the case of a Black slave James Somerset. According to David Olusoga 

To those who heard it, and to those who were to read about it later, the judgement appeared to grant freedom not just to James Somerset but to all black people in Britain. (Black and British p137-8) 

Much has been made of the undercurrents related to slavery and the slave trade in this novel. Sir Thomas Bartram’s wealth, after all, comes from his plantations in Antigua. Naming her book, which would reference the judgement, we can imagine that she was drawing attention to decency in relationships with people beyond your circle as well as within it.

The reader is also conscious of a great deal of wit, humour and sharp exposure of her characters. This lifts any danger of this novel being too worthy. 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published in 1814. I used the edition from the Penguin English Library (1966) 457pp

Related posts on Bookword

Lady Susan by Jane Austen 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Secrets in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

In the Society of Jane Austen

Pursuing Jane Austen

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Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim

Here are three short extracts from the first three pages of Expiation. They set the scene of a social milieu that is smug and critical and which provides the material for a novel of folly and lies, in which Elizabeth von Arnim has a great deal of fun at the expense of a large bourgeois family called Bott, known collectively as the Botts. We imagine that the family’s and suburb’s names are intended to be absurd.

Not only were the Botts kind, but the whole of Titford was kind. That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it. (1-2) 

And here she was at forty-five, a little cushiony woman, fair-skinned and dove-eyed, with dimples on her plump hands where other people had knuckles, and a smooth head, sleekly covered with agreeable hair the colour of respectability. (2-3)

What a wife. What a nice place the world would be if all wives were more like Milly, the male Botts had frequently thought – whispering it to themselves, for it wouldn’t do to say it out loud – when they had been having trouble with their own wives. (3)

Expiation

The novel opens as the family have just buried Earnest Bott who has been killed in a motor accident. His will has been read and the family are shocked. He has left his substantial everything to a charity for fallen women, except for £1000 to his wife Milly. ‘Only my wife will know why’. What had Milly done?

The Botts are concerned to keep the dreadful business of the will (not so much Milly’s offence) from being known in Titford. Milly must be treated as though she has done nothing wrong. But they don’t know what she has done. They begin to have suspicions. The family decide to give her houseroom in rotation. There are four remaining brothers and five sisters, and their discussion about how to support Milly resembles the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, talking each other down in the matter of their contributions to support a less fortunate family member.

When they go to tell her this, Milly has disappeared. 

Milly is mortified to realised that Earnest had known that she was conducting an affair and added the codicil to his will 2 years before. Milly leaves very early the morning after the will was read, to get her £1000 and go to live with her sister in Switzerland, also estranged from the Botts because she eloped with her lover from Earnest’s home 25 years previously. The story goes on from there, with Milly giving her sister Agatha the money because she has lived in great poverty since she eloped. Milly, now penniless, realises that she will have to marry Arthur, much against her inclination, for the affair long calmed into a generous friendship. But when they meet for a final time, she realises that he has found a young girl with whom he is in love and plans to marry. 

And so, with no means of support, she returns to Titford and to the Botts. Milly finds she must atone for what she has done. Not to Earnest, who is dead, but to his family – for Milly also suffers from that double standard: 

It is the woman, the Botts considered, on whom the duty has been laid of walking steadfastly along the straight path of virtue, thus persuading man, that natural deviator, to walk along it too. Sometimes he won’t, the Botts admitted, and then the woman’s duty is to continue along it alone. (38)

Milly begins living with each of her brothers-in-law and their wives in turn, and this causes severe strains upon their marriages, as each makes deductions about Milly and what she has been doing, the money, the cause of the dreadful will and the identity of Milly’s paramour. There is a great deal of hysteria and suspicion, and Milly is understood to be guiltless or extremely full of guile by different Botts in turn. All is resolved by the patience and good sense of the matriarch.

This is a novel that looks at hypocrisy, especially of the smug family Bott. It’s about the cost of lies and deception. We follow Milly, indeed sympathise with her as she tries to do the right thing by the Botts, but find ourselves questioning with her when it is okay to lie, why are some lies not punished (I’ll make you the happiest woman ever) and others are (finding happiness outside marriage). Frequently the family have to halt their discussions because it does not do to talk before the servants, from whom the truth must be hidden. It’s told with Elizabeth von Arnim’s trademark wit, her ability to reveal hypocrisy and with a certain amount of daring since she was writing in 1929 when adultery and divorce were not words to be breathed in mixed or polite company. 

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1929 and republished by Persephone Books in 2019. 362pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

Fallen Women, a themed post on Bookword

Heavenali’s blog delights in the absurdity of the Botts, in February 2021.

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Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley

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.

Red Pottage

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

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.

Related posts

Heavenali’s review from June 2020

Also reviewed on Stuck in a Book blog in August 2011

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