Review by Lisa Hopkins
The plot can be summarised as follows:
Winnie Maxon finds that her husband Cyril, a rising KC, crushes her, so she leaves him. He disapproves of divorce but she scorns pretence so lives openly with Godfrey Ledstone, whom she meets at the house of her freethinking cousin. Godfrey is worried about convention and allows his parents to inveigle him into flirting with a respectable neighbour, to the scorn of his sister Amy; she warns Winnie, but Godfrey leaves anyway. Irish Catholic Dick Dennehy also loves Winnie but bows to his faith. Winnie is offered a home by Mrs Lenoir, who has a past; she passes for an unmarried woman and meets Major Merriam, who is on leave from India and in want of a wife. Cyril decides to marry again so sues for divorce, but Winnie explains her position to Major Merriam and he puts the regiment first. By chance, Winnie meets Lady Rosaline Deering, whom Cyril wishes to marry, and Lady Rosaline, who remembers her from her marriage as pale and uninteresting, is so struck by her newfound cheerfulness that she refuses Cyril. Mrs Lenoir dies and Winnie returns to her cousin’s house, where she first met Dick Dennehy. Will his Catholicism still prove an insuperable obstacle?
This is a novel which has some points of interest and is also genuinely unpredictable, since its episodic structure and the presence of a little girl with a passion for fairy tales both invite speculation rather than confidence about where we might be heading and whether the ending will be a happy one. It is, though, hampered by its acute self-consciousness. At one point, the narrator observes that
‘we are in the habit of taking partial and one-sided views of our friends and neighbours … They come to stand, to us, for one quality or characteristic – just as the persons of a novel or a play often, perhaps generally, do, however much the writer may have endeavoured to give the whole man on his canvas’ (p. 167).
By the end, the book is openly conceding the extent to which it is itself schematic:
‘When put to a searching test, everybody, or almost everybody, had in some way broken down; if they were to be judged tby the strict standards which they professed, or by the canons which habitually governed their lives, they had been failures’ (p. 275).
As this suggests, the novel has something of the flavour of an experiment with controls, and for all its awareness of the danger, its own characters are not exempt from the charge of one-sidedness: Major Merriam stands for the call of duty and Dick Dennehy for the call of religion, Godfrey Ledstone is Weak and Cyril Maxon, as Winnie rather memorably says, personifies ‘Inkpat’ (she knows that the word is really incompatibility, but ‘inkpat’ goes further towards suggesting the way in which he seeks to overwrite her personality with his own, blotting and blackening her sense of self).
Revisiting the territory of Anna Karenina and A Doll’s House, Hope is clearly keen to show that Winnie has more prospects and choices than either Anna or Nora, not least because she has no need to worry about children: her baby by Maxon died and she does not become pregnant by Godfrey, presumably (though this is never said) because she has access to birth control). That plethora of choices does though lessen the sense of importance which might otherwise attach itself to any single one, with the result that all the novel’s various romances are bloodless, undeveloped affairs with more of a feel of the theoretical than of the passionate. The reader will probably wonder in a rather academic way what will happen to Winnie in the end, but I suspect they are unlikely to care very much.