Euphemia is by no means a conventional romantic heroine. She is a ‘large, heavy-featured young woman’, ungainly and dressed in badly-fitting clothes which she makes herself. The novel opens on her fortieth birthday, in the cottage where she has spent her youth caring for her bedridden father, a bully who hates her because she remains ‘maddeningly unmoved’ by his behaviour. Outwardly placid, Euphemia has a rich inner life and, when she can spend precious time alone, she feels quite different.
‘The personality that dropped from her was that of nurse and drudge; the personality that took its place was romantic, youthful, glowingly alive.’
Her father dies and she accepts a marriage proposal from their neighbour, George. But almost immediately she realizes that life is passing her by; she sells the furniture, leaves a note for George saying she can’t marry him and heads for London. A helpful taxi driver, seeing past her shabby clothes, takes her to the Belgravia Ladies’ Residential Club where Miss Cliffe, the proprietress, accepts her against her better judgement. She knows that other residents will complain and wonders why she agreed to take her. As others find, there is something appealing about Euphemia.
At first her job hunting is unsuccessful; her clothes are dreadful and she lacks references. Miss Cliffe takes her in hand and ensures that Euphemia has her hair cut properly and buys new clothes, plain and well-cut rather than the frilly, girlish garments she has been dreaming of.
The rest of the story shows Euphemia’s development as she takes various jobs as a housekeeper or a companion. There is a romance with Dr Marriott, to whom she becomes engaged at the end of the novel. He sees something ‘real, alive and humanising’ in her, in contrast to other women, but he is a rather unsubstantial figure and the main interest lies in Euphemia and in the portrayal of women’s lives.
Euphemia has a genuine interest in people and a warmth and motherliness which draws them to her. She is nervous at her interview for the job of housekeeper to a famous and vain novelist, Adrian Frost, but he lets slip how distressing he finds bad reviews and suddenly Euphemia sees him as
‘..a little boy, a rather conceited little boy, whose feelings have been hurt. The panic left her. She smiled – a large, motherly smile that altered her whole face.’
She tells him those reviews are not worth worrying about and he offers her the job because,
‘It was absolutely necessary to him that, when his spirit was frayed and chafed by the unkindness of his fellow-men, he should have this warm, healing glow to turn to.’
She has this effect on others. Two navvies at a coffee stall, a bus conductor, Adrian’s grown-up children are among those who find themselves confiding in her or looking to her for guidance. Once involved with other people she demonstrates a managing quality. Unlike Flora in Cold Comfort Farm she doesn’t plan to sort out everyone’s lives but she does intervene, when the opportunity arises, with happy results.
She has a childlike naivety tempered by ‘native, peasant shrewdness’. When she arrives at the Belgravia, she observes this new world with interest, unaware of how the others see her. The only people who strongly object to her are snobs like Mrs Lancaster who says to her toadying companion,
‘When I saw her in the lounge I couldn’t help wondering what Papa would have felt if he’d thought that I should ever have to sit in a room on equal terms with a woman like that. She wouldn’t have been admitted to the servants’ hall in my old home.’
She would have been even more horrified had she known of Euphemia’s dream of opening a little shop.
‘…..children, their heads just reaching the counter, pushing their pennies over it with small, grimy hands….Women, their babies in their arms, talking to her, gossiping, confiding. It must be in a “common” neighbourhood, somewhere where people were real. She would have the purple dress with flounces and lace collar for “best”.’
Clothes and the change in her tastes are an important indicator of Euphemia’s development. Initially a divided self, one part serving others and the other full of romantic dreams, by the end of the novel she has matured. As Miss Cliffe notes,
‘..knowledge of life had blended with the old romantic dreams, bringing not disillusionment but understanding.’
She had always planned to buy a supremely girly dress but, when she is able to, she finds that she no longer wants it and buys something plainer instead. Miss Cliffe’s opinion is that,
‘It’s quite nice in a way, but it’s too bright a mauve and the collar should have been plainer, and the ruching not there at all.’
Euphemia is glad it isn’t dull. She knows that she has a tendency to ‘break out’ as Miss Cliffe puts it, and this is a quality she would hate to lose.
An underlying theme is the precariousness of women’s lives, even for those who work. Euphemia’s options are limited to housekeeper/companion and even then she needs references. Miss Cliffe works hard but the finances of the Belgravia are on a knife edge and an unforeseen bill means disaster. In the end, she is saved by a legacy from an uncle. The upper class women who have come down in the world are worse off. The saddest is the embittered and impoverished Miss Furmore who lives at the Belgravia in between visits to wealthy relatives and friends. We see her in her room, writing what is basically a cadging letter, trying to confirm a very casual invitation. She knows that she is now an object of pity rather than a welcome guest but she longs to spend time in the kind of luxury she grew up with. However she receives a letter announcing that the only company which still pays her dividends is going into liquidation, and, knowing that she will be penniless, she kills herself.
In spite of that tragedy, this is a warm, good-humoured novel, as befits Euphemia’s character. Nothing seems to faze her, not even a dissipated poet taking cocaine. There is some enjoyable satire, directed at what Euphemia calls the ‘takers’ such as Adrian Frost and Mrs Lancaster, while ‘givers’ like Adrian’s secretary are rewarded. The structure is episodic and the romance rather uninteresting but there is a richness in the picture of the lives of Euphemia and the others female characters which I found very attractive.