A novella about a woman who is neither charming nor beautiful, whose temper alienates her from her large Victorian family, and who watches as her life passes her by. 1913.
I read this short book a few years ago, while still in college. In a way, I suppose the memory of it has had a part in the creation of ALB.
Come to think of it, I read this same Virago edition those years ago. At less than 150 pages, it’s a quick read, easily accomplished in an afternoon.
Part of what made me pull The Third Miss Symons off the library shelf is that it’s about an “old maid.” I couldn’t tell you why, but I tend to like these kinds of books.
Henrietta Symons is a plain, unremarkable woman, and doesn’t come off very well. She seems not to understand those around her, or how to express empathy for those she loves and wishes to receive love from. As a whole, the supporting cast of characters (chiefly her large family), is pretty unremarkable too. They’re all just normal kinds of people.
To me, the plot, equally unremarkable at first glance, was simply a vehicle by which to show the character’s life trajectory. I’ve read many books before (Miss Pettigrew comes to mind) that also features a plain-looking protagonist. In those other books, though, the authors seem to be looking for an opportunity to redeem their plain spinsters.
What really makes this short novel stand apart from the genre is that F. M. Mayor permits Henrietta to be just as she is. And not only is Henrietta Symons plain-looking—she also has quite a few character flaws, like a quick, querulous temper. Henrietta too sees herself for the charmless, disagreeable individual she is. In some sense, her acknowledgement is actually a charm in its own right. Sort of.
The Third Miss Symons not a funny or silly book. All throughout, I felt like Mayor was soberly instructing me: such is the fate that awaits such a person. If the book had been longer, this message might have become boring, or even depressing. At this quaint length, though, I found it flowed along quite naturally and ended, well, at the end.
Best line from the book:
When in doubt, go abroad.
Reminded me of:
- Frances Hodgson Burnett (Emily Fox-Seton, aka A Lady of Quality/The Making of a Marchioness)
- Winifred Watson (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day)
- Jane Austen (Mansfield Park)
- Vita Sackville-West (All Passion Spent)
- Tracy Chevalier (Falling Angels)
- Sylvia Townsend Warner (Lolly Willowes)