Still She Wished for Company (1924), by Margaret Irwin

Still She Wished for Company is a timeslip story – a true one, the author suggests – about a psychic connection between two women living a hundred years apart.  There is independent Jan, perhaps in her mid-20s and living in 1920s London; and innocent Juliana, in her late teens and living with her family in their great house in the 18th century.  These two are aware of each other and occasionally appear in each other’s time, without understanding how or why, and the link between them is encouraged by Juliana’s dissolute elder brother, Lucian.  He too has a psychic ability, and he and Jan are attracted to each other.

The theory seems to be that the barriers of time can be crossed, if there is sufficient will.  Perhaps Still She Wished was suggested in part by the increased interest in spiritualism after the First World War, by a desire for communication with the dead.

This is Margaret Irwin’s first novel and, until I was looking for a not-too-scary supernatural story, I didn’t know that she wrote anything like this.  Her best-known work is her historical trilogy about Elizabeth I: Young Bess, Elizabeth, Captive Princess and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain.  She usually focused on real people and events and was admired for her re-creations.  But Margaret Irwin also wrote a number of respected ghost stories and These Mortals about a wizard and his daughter.

Margart Irwin by Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 27 July 1939. Creative Commons licence, NPG

Margart Irwin by Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 27 July 1939. Creative Commons licence, NPG

If you set aside the supernatural elements, you can see in Still She Wished how Margaret Irwin wrote her acclaimed books.  It has many of the elements of a fine historical novel.  The 18th century section conveys the atmosphere of a great country house and the concerns and pleasures of its inhabitants.  We see Juliana dutifully visiting old retainers, writing in her journal, in company and at a ‘water party’ (travelling down river by barge to a ‘fête champêtre’).  This is particularly well done: silks and satins, country dances and minuets and the ‘carved and gilded barge, monstrous and magnificent, under its scarlet awning, on the glittering, sunlit river’.

We also learn about the strict hierarchy of 18th century society.  Juliana’s brother Lucian has a bad reputation but he is without question the head of the family, with the title and money, and everyone else – his mother and grandmother, his younger brothers, the servants – is in his power.  It never occurs to Juliana to refuse to join his psychic experiments (indeed she is flattered by his notice and attracted by his glamour), even though she is frightened.

Again she felt that strange shrinking as he laid his hand on her shoulder to steady her while she took the chocolate, and she thought he must have felt her shiver.

The 20th century section, which is very short, suggests that Margaret Irwin could also have written the sort of domestic fiction often explored in this blog.  Jan lives in cramped conditions at home with her mother and sister.  There does not seem to be much money, and there’s a suggestion that they have come down in the world.

Three-quarters of an hour later, she plunged, bedraggled and dripping, into a small room where a worn-faced woman sat at a sewing machine among a quantity of heterogeneous articles.  A tall, largely-built girl who sat on the floor, half covered with stockings, got up clumsily, scattering them in all directions, and flung herself on the intruder with the eagerness of a prisoner who has seen a chance of escape.

Jan works in an office, at a dull job.  There is a decent but rather dour, young man, Donald, who loves her, but is not making much progress as Jan thinks about the portrait she has seen of a mysterious 18th century gentleman.

But when he was unable to hold her attention, or, most of all, when he sometimes caught in her a look of delighted expectancy, a look that was surprisingly radiant, sparkling and intimate to herself; then he felt jealous of her thoughts, whatever they might be, that could draw her so securely from him.

The two sections of the novel work well by themselves, but less well together.  The balance between them is not right, with Jan’s story being crammed into a few pages at the beginning and end.  I was  left feeling cheated and wondering if interleaving the stories might have worked better.

One last thing.  ‘Still she wished for company’ sounds like a quotation, but I can’t find it.  Does anyone know it?

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Still She Wished for Company (1924), by Margaret Irwin

  1. The quotation is from a poem with the refrain, Aye she sat and aye she span and aye she wished for company. I think it is anon and I remember reading it in anthologies. It might be in Come Hither Helen

    Sent from Windows Mail

  2. This sounds a fascinating one. It is intriguing how much interest there was, during the 1920s, in the eighteenth century. My favourite example is Cleone Knox’s Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion.

  3. THE STRANGE VISITOR

    A woman was sitting at her reel one night; And still she sat, and
    still she reeled, and still she wished for company.

    In came a pair of broad broad soles, and sat down at the fireside;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a pair of small small legs, and sat down on the broad broad
    soles;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a pair of thick thick knees, and sat down on the small small
    legs;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a pair of thin thin thighs, and sat down on the thick thick
    knees;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a pair of huge huge hips, and sat down on the thin thin
    thighs;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a wee wee waist, and sat down on the huge huge hips;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a pair of broad broad shoulders, and sat down on the wee wee
    waist;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a pair of small small arms, and sat down on the broad broad
    shoulders;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a pair of huge huge hands, and sat down on the small small
    arms;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a small small neck, and sat down on the broad broad shoulders;

    And still she sat, and still she reeled, and still she wished for
    company.

    In came a huge huge head, and sat down on the small small neck.

    “How did you get such broad broad feet?” quoth the woman.

    “Much tramping, much tramping” (_gruffly_).

    “How did you get such small small legs?”

    “Aih-h-h!-late–and wee-e-e–moul” (_whiningly_).

    “How did you get such thick thick knees?”

    “Much praying, much praying” (_piously_).

    “How did you get such thin thin thighs?”

    “Aih-h-h!–late–and wee-e-e–moul” (_whiningly_).

    “How did you get such big big hips?”

    “Much sitting, much sitting” (_gruffly_).

    “How did you get such a wee wee waist?”

    “Aih-h-h!–late–and wee-e-e-moul” (_whiningly_).

    “How did you get such broad broad shoulders?”

    “With carrying broom, with carrying broom” (_gruffly_).

    “How did you get such small small arms?”

    “Aih-h-h!–late–and wee-e-e–moul” (_whiningly_.)

    “How did you get such huge huge hands?”

    “Threshing with an iron flail, threshing with an iron flail”
    (_gruffly_).

    “How did you get such a small small neck?”

    “Aih-h-h!–late–wee-e-e–moul” (_pitifully_).

    “How did you get such a huge huge head?”

    “Much knowledge, much knowledge” (_keenly_).

    “What do you come for?”

    “FOR YOU!” (_At the top of the voice, with a wave of the arm and a
    stamp of the feet._)

    – from Joseph Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales

  4. Jamie – Many thanks. Funny and scary. In the book it makes a lot of sense in terms of the relationships between Juliana, Lucian and Jan.

  5. For pedantry’s sake, Jacobs got it from Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1847), p. 253. RC notes: “The figure is meant for that of Death. The dialogue, towards the end, is managed in a low and drawling manner, so as to rivet the attention, and awaken an undefined awe in the juvenile audience. Thus wrought up, the concluding words come upon them with such effect as generally to cause a scream of alarm.”
    ms 6th March 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s