Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins (1918)

There have been a few blog reviews of this novel recently. See Stuck-in-a-Book

Review by Thecla W:

Patricia Brent is 24, secretary to an MP, Arthur Bonsor, and living in the Galvin House Residential Hotel. One day she overhears two of the older ladies who live there talking about her. They are pitying her because she doesn’t have a young man even though she’s “really not bad-looking”. Her feeling of mortification leads her to invent a fiance, a major in the Army, with whom she is dining the following evening at the Quadrant Grill Room. Having done this, she feels she has to go there and finds that three of her fellow residents are also there. She notices a young officer sitting alone who is watching her. She sits down at his table, saying “Please play up to me, I’m in an awful hole. I’ll explain presently”. She does so, they get on well but Patricia doesn’t expect to see him again nor to discover that he is, in fact, Lord Peter Bowen MC, DSO. He tries to woo Patricia but she is very uncomfortable at how their relationship began and tries to discourage him. But other characters are enlisted on Peter’s side and the rest of the novel shows how the courtship progresses.

This is a light, comic romantic novel and the conventional happy ending is never in doubt. The obstacles to the flowering of the romance come from Patricia. She is uncomfortable with the fact that she picked Peter up and says that “nothing can be built on such a foundation”. However, over the course of the novel, her reluctance to become involved with Peter is worn down his persistence and that of his sister, Lady Tanagra, friend, Geoffrey Elton, and Mr Triggs, a wealthy, self-made, cockney businessman who is father-in-law to Patricia’s employer.

The romantic part of the story follows conventional lines and is mildly humorous.

The leading characters are rather two-dimensional although Patricia has a self-awareness and a capacity for dry humour which are attractive, the latter particularly in evidence in conversations with her interfering Aunt Adelaide. Patricia is described as “essentially feminine, and liked having things decided for her”. And Jenkins’ comedy does largely rely on conventional stereotypes. For example, Aunt Adelaide is portrayed thus,

“Miss Brent was a tall, angular woman, with spinster shouting from every angle of her uncomely person”.

It also relies on mockery, sometimes with a slightly cruel edge. This is apparent in the treatment of the residents of the Galvin House. It is possibly deserved by Miss Wangle and Mrs Mosscrop-Smythe, the unkind pair whose conversation Patricia had overheard. Miss Wangle, the great-niece of a bishop, to whom she constantly refers, is “acid of speech and barren of pity. Scandal and ‘ the dear bishop’ were her chief preoccupations”. While her “toady”, Mrs Mosscrop-Smythe “wrapped her venom in Christian charity, thus making herself the more dangerous of the two”. But the other harmless residents are treated in a similar fashion with Jenkins particularly keen to mock their appearance. Mr Sefton, for example, is said to show “the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath”. And their clothes are routinely described in a way that makes them figures of fun.

Mr Triggs is treated much more sympathetically. His style of dress is equally objectionable. “He leaned towards checks, rather loud checks, trousers that were tight about the calf, and a coat that was a sporting conception of the morning coat, with a large flapped pocket on either side”. But he is a cheerful, successful character with a good heart who is regarded affectionately by the younger characters as well as by the author and any mockery is gentle and kindly.

The romantic story is fun and a very easy read. But these contrasting attitudes towards the different characters and the undertone of cruelty left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. At times it seemed that some of the hotel residents were being mocked just for being lonely, unsuccessful and badly dressed. Jenkins devotes many lines to making fun of people’s sartorial errors. However, humour based on mocking the less fortunate usually finds a market and I expect it was so in 1918.

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