This is the book that I received for Christmas from my Persephone Secret Santa, Margaret of Ten Thousand Places. Choosing a book for another person is never easy, but of all the titles published by Persephone Margaret managed to select one that was perfect for me. Thank you, Margaret!
Alas, Poor Lady tells the story of one London family, the Scrimgeours, over a period of more than sixty years, from the Victorian era through to the 1930s. Captain and Mrs Scrimgeour have eight children – seven are girls and only one, the youngest, is a boy – and we get to know all of them, some better than others. We watch as they grow up and try to find their place in society – a society designed to cater only for men and, to a lesser extent, for married women. For a woman who stayed single (whether by choice or not) her options in life were very limited.
Three of the Scrimgeour girls marry and leave home early in the story, though they do reappear from time to time. Of the other four, Mary is the eldest sister still living at home and is portrayed as the stereotypical ‘spinster’, a quiet, sensible woman who can usually be found reading a book and who has never really been expected to get married. Agatha decides to follow a different route after it starts to look likely that she, like Mary, is also going to remain single – but will this really lead to happiness? What Queenie really wants is to get a job, but after considering several possible career paths is forced to come to a disappointing conclusion. And finally there’s Grace, the youngest sister, who through no fault of her own finds herself facing poverty and in the uncomfortable position of becoming a burden to her family.
Although the focus of the book is on the seven girls, it’s interesting to see how their brother, Charlie, is also under pressure to conform to society’s expectations of how a boy should behave. In some ways, he doesn’t really have any more freedom to be himself than his sisters do. His father is furious with him when he discovers him playing with Grace’s doll, for example, instead of his own toy soldiers.
Another thing I liked was the amount of information we are given on everyday life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the Captain keeps insisting he’s ‘not a rich man’ and worrying about money, the Scrimgeours are evidently a very wealthy family with a large house and servants. It was interesting to see how their way of life changed over the years as a result of poor financial decisions and changing economics.
I loved this book but I know it won’t appeal to everyone. It’s slow and detailed, doesn’t have a lot of plot, and it did seem to take me a long time to read it. And yet without anything really ‘happening’ there’s still so much going on in this book that this post could easily have been twice as long as it is.
So, for anyone with an interest in feminism and the differing roles of men and women in society, I can’t recommend Alas, Poor Lady highly enough. Although my favourite Persephone so far is still Little Boy Lost (largely due to the emotional impact it had on me) this one is now a close second.