Book Review by Sylvia D: My second book from the Mark Valentine donation is Augusta Varty-Smith’s She Was His Wife, published by Heath Cranton in 1936.
Peter Carmichael is a successful, third generation City businessman whose father had built up an extensive estate, Long Ashes, a train ride away from the City, and had provided his family with a substantial Georgian style house. Peter Carmichael is evidently in the middle years of his life as he is gently greying, puffs on a pipe and has a rheumaticky knee which prevents him from dancing but doesn’t prevent him from riding. As Anita Brookner would say, ‘an aristocrat of the middle-classes’.
Peter Carmichael has recently married pretty, gregarious twenty-one year old Betty. Betty falls for the handsome Captain Hugh Lamley, home on leave from India and staying with his sister who lives on the estate. Returning home from London earlier than expected one evening, Peter finds his wife in Hugh Lamley’s arms. He doesn’t divorce her or throw her out, he justs treats her as a guest in his house until she gets so dispirited that she sets out on a motor tour of Cornwall, accompanied by chauffeur, maid and ‘courier’. Peter Carmichael makes his Rolls Royce available for her trip as well as arranging everything for her and paying an extra ‘hundred to your banking-account. So you can buy as many post cards as you like’ – (p252).
There are two other major characters, an elegant, manipulative older woman, Mrs Le Jarbey, who treated Hugh Lamley as a poodle out in India, resents the attentions he is paying to Betty and tries to make mischief. The other is a really strange creation, James Aspendale, who also rents a house on the estate. He is obsessed with his former wife and is constantly stalking her, so much so that at one point he drags Peter Carmichael off to Venice so that they can spy on his ex-wife and her new man.
While Betty is in Cornwall, Aspendale persuades Peter to go out riding with him, entices him to the roughest part of the common, pulls out a revolver and shoots him in the back. Aspendale then spurs his horse wildly towards the cliff top and the horse ‘took a flying leap into space and with a downward crash carried both itself and its rider to their doom’ – (p 262). Peter is dangerously wounded and Betty is recalled via one of those SOS broadcasts that used to precede the six o’clock news on the Home Service. She has a fearful journey home through a wild and stormy night and sits for days staring out of the window watching the clouds drifting across the sky until one night she has a dream about Jesus and awakes to the news from his eminent doctor that her husband will survive.
The novel ends with a, to me, cloying paragraph:
‘If you care to visit the gardens of Long Ashes – and they are worth going to see! I know them well – they are not difficult to find. And if you are in luck’s way, you will see a little toddling child playing with his nurse. This is Peter, the fourth of that name, and the sleeping partner in the well-known firm in the City of Peter Carmichael & Son’ – (p 283).
When I started reading She Was His Wife, I thought it was going to be Mills & Boon-style escapist literature but as I got further in that didn’t seem right. It was too melodramatic, too moralising, the tone too gushing. The relationship between husband and wife was too paternalistic. Betty, despite being brought up on an Australian ranch, is forever swooning, sobbing, lying on couches, looking pale and wan. There are stereotypic set pieces such as Betty’s birthday ball and her drive home through the thunder and rain. It seemed very Victorian and reminded me of East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood. I decided therefore to try to find out about Augusta Varty-Smith which wasn’t easy as there was very little about her on the web. Her dates are 1849-1941. She spent all her life in Cumberland and never married. She seems to have written only two other books, The Fawcetts and Garods, published in 1886 and the three volume, Matthew Tindale, in 1891, under the pseudonym “Saimath”. So – definitely Victorian, and she must have been 86 when She Was His Wife was published. It would be intriguing to know whether she had written the story earlier in life, whether she was in need of some income or whether she was persuaded to write again by her family or friends.
I followed up a reference on the website of At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1831-1901 to an article in the Leeds Mercury of 22 June 1892 which reveals that Gladstone read and approved of Matthew Tindale whilst some other reviewers apparently did not and the Circulating Library website itself states that ‘Reviewers found her first two novels good imitations of George Eliot.’ A British Newspaper Archive search also came up with the only mention I have found of She Was His Wife. From the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer of 19 February 1936:
‘There are probably people who pine for just such a novel as this. We are promised no squalid contacts, such as have sickened hearts in recent books. “The characters,” says the jacket, are well-to-do English people.” There is a very high moral tone (and who shall say that is not wanted these days?). “He did not like Mrs Jarbey, he had once caught her telling a lie” is a sentence that will show the standard of the leading people in this straightforward tale.
The reviewer then goes on to criticise Varty-Smith’s use of English which I agree is sometimes rather strange.
I was going to recommend that She Was His Wife should not be added to the collection as it is not well written. However, I failed to find any mention of copies being available on the web and it seems never to have been republished. Given its rarity, therefore, and the lack of any contemporary review, it was decided the book should be added to the Collection as a curiosity and I would write a review so there would be at least some record of this out of its time novel. It does also have some value as a social document. When, for instance, did people stopping toasting the monarch, the City of London – ‘and the Trade thereof’ after every evening meal’ – (p 232)!
For anyone interested, Matthew Tyndale was reproduced in the US in 2015 from an original copy on the grounds that it had been “selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” No printed copy seems to be available in the UK but it can be downloaded for free from Kobo ebooks.