The Vanity Girl (1920) by Compton Mackenzie

Book review by Sylvia D: When Compton Mackenzie’s The Vanity Girl (the copy I read being the Remploy reprint of 1973) was first published in 1920 by Macdonald, it was dedicated to Mackenzie’s sister, Fay Compton, the actress. When it was republished in 1954, Mackenzie (1883-1972) re-wrote the original dedication, with the words ‘Dearest Fay, I dedicated this Edwardian romance to you when it was first published in 1920. I re-dedicate to you this new edition thirty-four years later when the Edwardian decade seems as remote as the Regency . . .’ Rooted firmly in the Edwardian period, this novel can only be read as a period piece.
The story follows the fortunes of Norah Caffyn, a chorus girl at the Vanity Theatre, who first appeared in one of MacKenzie’s most highly regarded novels, The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett. Sylvia Scarlett herself flits in and out of The Vanity Girl as a minor and rather mysterious character.
Norah is the eldest of a lower middle class family of nine children who live in Lonsdale Road, West Kensington. She is a most unpleasant character – she might be beautiful but she is vain, idle, fickle, selfish (if she can’t get her own way, she accuses the other person of being selfish), and insensitive. She even goes as far as to take her sister Dorothy’s first name for her stage name. Her parents are very much stock characters – father is assistant secretary of the Church of England Purity Society. He is pompous and mean,  and blusters a lot with ‘bristling moustaches’. He is also hypocritical – he rails against the lax morals of the day but his daughter discovers later that he is not averse to visiting ladies of certain repute. Mother is meek, faded from so much child bearing, constantly anxious, has a tendency to swoon at the slightest upset and is always worried that something might infuriate her husband whose temper she fears.
It is a meeting with the racy mother of one of her friends which determines Norah to go on the stage. To achieve this she brutally ditches her fiancé, bargains with her father and overcomes his suspicions of theatre folk being of easy virtue, changes her name to Dorothy Lonsdale, takes elocution lessons and bullies her mother into lending her £500. On tour as a chorus girl in Miss Elsie of Chelsea, Dorothy falls in with a group of aristocratic undergraduates in Oxford and shamelessly claims to be a very, very distant relation of one of them whose name is Arthur Lonsdale. She rushes out to secure a copy of Debrett and decides to adopt the Lonsdale family crest and motto as her own.
To be talent-spotted for the Vanity Theatre chorus  (The Vanity Theatre is based on the Gaiety Theatre which was in the Strand) is Dorothy’s next goal and she is quite ruthless in achieving what she wants. Her success is met with disdainful relief, ‘I expect I shall soon forget what an awful life touring is,” said Dorothy to herself that night, as she turned back the limp cotton sheets and looked distastefully at the hummocky mattress.’ There was a trenchant symbolism, too, in massacring a flea with Debrett; ‘no other volume would have been heavy enough’ – (p 89).
In London Dorothy is pursued by Lord Clarehaven, another stock character. It was not uncommon for good-looking Gaiety girls to leave the stage to marry into the peerage but Clarehaven wants Dorothy to become his mistress as his mother would be horrified at the idea of him marrying an actress. Dorothy plays her cards right again and when, in despair, he gives in and proposes, ‘Dorothy’s heart leapt within her; but she preserved a calm exterior, and a sad smile expressed her disbelief in his seriousness. He protested; almost he declaimed. She merely shook her head, and the desperate suitor hurried down to Devonshire in order to convince his mother that he must marry Dorothy at once, and that she must demonstrate either by visit or by letter what a welcome his bride would receive from the family. Clarehaven lacked eloquence; the dowager was appalled’ – (p 139). She does, though, finally relent.
All this time I’d been waiting fruitlessly for Dorothy to get her comeuppance. The book is divided into two parts – her theatre life and her life as Countess Clarehaven. It isn’t until two years into her marriage that things start to slip when her first baby – a son – is stillborn. Her husband, whose father was a notorious gambler and alcoholic, gets involved with a group of gambling card players and then starts buying race horses. By 1914 the family house and estate are mortgaged and his remaining funds are lost when his horse, Vanity Girl, fails to win the Derby. Within four weeks of the outbreak of war Clarehaven has gone with the North Devon Dragoons to Flanders and been killed in action.
Even now all is not lost. In London, before her marriage, Dorothy had met a fabulously rich financier called Leopold Hausberg. Compton makes this Jewish character ugly and ‘endowed with an unfortunately simian countenance by the wicked fairy who was not invited to his circumcision – p 121. Hausberg had managed some investments for her and Dorothy suspected that he was in love with her. He is portrayed as the villain of the story. He has tricked Lord Clarehaven by giving him misleading advice about his horses and trainers; he has secured a mortgage over the Clarehaven home, Clare; he has secured Dorothy’s reluctant promise that she will give herself to him if Vanity Girl doesn’t win the Derby in order to ensure Clare, which she adores, remains in the family. She is only saved at the last moment from having to carry through her side of the bargain when her husband who has found out that Hausberg, now known as Houston, has been cheating him, arrives at Houston’s flat and beats him up.
A few weeks after Clarehaven’s death Dorothy finds she is pregnant with his posthumous child and a year after his death she returns to Devon to show off the sixth earl to the Clarehaven family. At a loose end one evening she is wandering in the grounds of Clare when she happens upon Houston who immediately offers her marriage and the estate back. She is still prepared to bargain though and says she would only marry him if he makes over the house and estate to her son and buys back some land Clarehaven’s father had sold. When he queries what would happen if she and he had children, her immediate reply is,‘”Well, . . . they’ll be half-brothers and sisters of the sixth Earl of Clarehaven, which will be quite enough for them, won’t it?”’ She then goes off to write a new entry for Debrett.
One senses that all through the novel Compton Mackenzie is essentially poking fun at many society figures – peers, actor-managers, gamblers, chorus girls, exasperating relatives. It is very satirical but I found the second half with its focus on racehorses, races and betting rather tedious. There is absolutely no mention of Edwardian politics and the outbreak of war comes totally unheralded. There is some period detail; the reader is, for instance, reminded of the lack of independence of married women in the higher ranks of society before the First World War – as a single girl Dorothy can control her own destiny; as the wife of an aristocrat she has no say in the financial and property decisions taken by her husband. I sense this is probably not one of MacKenzie’s better novels.

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