Review by Sylvia D:
I enjoyed W Pett Ridge’s Miss Mannering (1923) for three reasons. First, the novel had an unlikely theme, focusing as it does for much on the time on the proprietor, staff and customers of a basement cafe in the City of London at the beginning of the twentieth century. Second, I found the insights it affords into the attitudes of young women working in the City before the First World War and the attitudes of others towards them very revealing. Thirdly, the book has a strong sense of place and, as a Londoner myself, it was fun to follow Vi in her wanderings around the City and to read of her doing the things Londoners and visitors to London do such as watching the Lord Mayor’s parade, taking trips on the river and going to the shows.
The novel has an enigmatic opening with Miss Mannering, who seems to be a competent woman, and her companion, about to embark on a steamer at Tilbury. The rest of the book tells the story of how Miss Mannering came to be embarking and reveals for the reader where she was bound.
Miss Mannering’s given name is Violet but everyone knows her as Vi which immediately gives a different class image from ‘Miss Mannering’. Vi’s background seems to be lower middle class and she arrives in London at the time of the Boer War as a young, rather naive girl. She finds work in a city restaurant known as Kendricks where she assisted in the kitchen but eventually became cashier.
When Mr Kendrick died, he left the restaurant to Vi rather than to his disreputable only son, Arthur. As well as running the restaurant, she turns Mr Kendrick’s home into a lodging house for young women and sets up tearooms in Coleman Street where the girls engaged to work there were
‘chosen not for attractiveness of appearance (they would have gained few prizes at a seaside beauty competition) but for neatness and alacrity. Vi paid them well. She provided them with slippers, to enable them to escape the tiredness consequent on high heels. She subscribed to a lending library; one book for each young woman’ – (pp 224-225).
Pett Ridge has great fun with the characters who work in Kendricks restaurant: Jim, the senior waiter, whose philosophy is to finish any wine left in bottles by customers but does so ‘more as a question of principle than anything else. Give me a glass of stout, any day of the week, in preference’ – ( pp 15-16), Mr Enever, the cook, who has “got” religion, Ned, the other assistant who has ambitions to be a toastmaster, and Miss Tell, the cashier, who has it in for Vi but is sacked for fiddling the books and giving money to Arthur.
Vi, who is never described and never says very much, comes across as a very sensible, level-headed young woman who is constantly helping others to sort out their problems. It’s a little surprising, therefore, that given her success in business Pett Ridge makes her ‘puzzled’ by financial details and reluctant to make any attempt to understand them. Perhaps he couldn’t quite bring himself to make her the complete equal of a male entrepreneur.
Vi is also plagued by her siblings turning up from time to time, usually asking for financial help. She refuses to give money to her brother, Michael, who goes off to seek his fortune abroad but she does help out her flighty sister, Dora, so much so that when Dora has an illegitimate baby, Henry, Vi takes him on.
When Henry is seven and a half, Dora marries disreputable Arthur Kendrick and comes to claim her son. By now Vi recognises that, having met him when he was in London, she has fallen in love with Mr Calder, a colleague of her brother, Michael, who is working out in Bolivia. At the very moment Dora comes to claim her son, Vi receives a cable from Mr Calder, ‘”Will you come out here, and marry me? Bring boy”’ – (p 277). She sets off for South America the very next day, taking Henry with her.
Vi is unusual in that she not only ended up being the director of a limited company, but she continued to work in the City for several years. By 1900 it was no longer uncommon for women to be employed in the City of London but they were usually younger women who would take on minor clerical jobs and had no intention of staying long, as Pett Ridge acknowledges,
‘It did appear that the City was regarded by young girls as but a holiday resort, occupying the vacation between the end of schooldays, and the beginning of wedded life’ whilst ‘the City had no use for elderly women . . . In Coleman Street, the members of Vi’s sex talked of any lady colleague over twenty-five as Ma, and evidently regarded her as near to an octogenarian’ – (p 225).
It seems too that women outside London were suspicious of those who left to work in the capital. When Vi goes visiting during a stay in her father’s village, which I think must be somewhere in East Anglia, she is greeted with hostility by the local women. She found when she called on them that she wasn’t invited in, that ‘Offers of coins to youngsters were sternly barred by their elders; the children received instructions to go into the back garden and stay there.’ When curiosity finally got the better of her and she asked why this was, it was insinuated that Vi was so well dressed thanks to immoral earnings.
‘We don’t read the Sunday papers without arriving at some idea of how good-looking young women carry on up in London nowadays,’ was the answer she got – (p176).
Miss Mannering was published towards the end of Pett Ridge’s life when his books were no longer as popular as they had been. One can understand why to a much changed society in the years after the First World War his novels might have seemed old-fashioned but for the modern reader the book has a certain period interest.