Thursday, June 26, 2008

Alas, Poor Lady

At our house the gray-covered Persephone books are beginning to take over a bookshelf. Not everyone in the house approves. "Are these Pod books?" The cat pensively chewed the cover the other day, perhaps mistaking it for a rectangular mouse. But these books are not for mice, In light of reading Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady (Persepone), with its question of what happens to unmarried gentlewomen, I’m briefly signing in to praise this "found" classic. This later novel may seem more conventional than Ferguson's The Brontes Went to Woolworths, but I'm convinced there's more to it. It is beautfully written, with compassion and great cynicism, and more blatantly feminist andsophisticated than Ferguson's her earlier novell. Ferguson's writing style falls somehwere between Virginia Woolf's and Dorothy Whipple's. In Alas, Poor Lady, the passive mother of eight children vaguely reminds me of the mother in To the Lighthouse.

It’s a generational narrative, chiasmically arranged in four segments: 1936, 1870-1888, 1888 to 1936, and 1936 and After. The family's daughters are so far apart in age that they essentially make up two generations: the three older daughters marry conventionally, four others, not pretty enough, remain desperately single as they slowly realize they have nothing to do, caught in the passivity of Victorian mores.

Well, I haven't finished the book. But the emphasis on the sisters reminds me very much of Dorothy Whipple's THEY WERE SISTERS. The two weren't published very far apart, so one gathers these ideas were "just around."

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