I am a fan of middlebrow women’s literature.
And Amber Reeves’s superb novel, A Lady and Her Husband (Persephone), first published in 1914, exactly suits my taste. This neglected novel is graceful and entertaining, yet it has long been out-of-print.
Amber Reeves is best remembered now as one of H. G. Wells’ mistresses. In fact, I first read about her in Margaret Drabble’s introduction to Wells’ brilliant novel, Ann Veronica. Reeves was the model for Ann Veroinca, a 21-year-old Cinderella suffragette who leaves home on principle after her father forbids her to go to a ball. And she continues to pursue the unfeminine study of sciences, also denounced by her father.
But Reeves was a writer in her own right: she was a Fabian socialist, a feminist, and a brilliant graduate of Cambridge. In the Wellsian tradition, Reeves’s A Lady and Her Husband is laced with radical politics, socialism, and feminism.
When the novel opens, the 45-year-old heroine, Mary, has no interests outside the home. Her husband James runs he family business, a chain of tea shops, though she is half owner. Now her youngest daughter, 18-year-old Rosemary, is getting married, and Mary is anxious about the too early marriage. Rosemary, guilty at leaving her mother, urges Mary to investigate the state of the female employees at the tea shops and introduce improvements.
And so Mary begins to study the culture of the waitresses. With her secretary, Miss Percival, Mary interviews the waitresses and managers. And when a young pretty waitress, Florrie Wilson almost faints in front of her, she is concerned that there are no chairs for the waitresses. And they make very little money: they are hired only if (they say) their income is not their main support.
Florrie is the archetypal waitress. She needs the money, but pretends to be a lady. One day she sends Mary a note asking for help. Florrie lives in a grim room in poverty with her dying mother. And she has been fired from her job, through a complicated set of events that ended in her borrowing, or stealing, money from the till. Moreover, she pawned a diamond necklace, a gift from a young man she doesn’t love, and needs to retrieve and give it back. She says he has threatened her. As Mary and Miss Percival walk with Florrie to the pawn shop, the young man follows them. Florrie says he stalks her everywhere.
They turned off down the street and Mary knew for the first time the choking excitement of the chase. She would not look round to see whether the man was following, every instinct forbade it, but she could not help wishing that Florrie would do it for her. This did not seem likely; Florrie’s eyes were fixed straight ahead, and every line of her shoulders expressed an unyielding singleness of purpose. It was extraordinary that she did not seem to mind whether the man was there or not. Even the bold Miss Percival was looking at the ground.
Reeves’ spare prose makes the narrative distinctive: it is very fast-paced, well-crafted, and not preachy (until the near the end). Florrie throws the necklace at the young man, who begins to cry. Mary suspects the story is more complicated than Florrie’s version, but by the time they get back to the room, Mrs. Wilson, Florrie’s mother, is dead. Whatever the story really is, whether Florrie is a thief or a victim, Mary is determined to help her.
What is the answer? Higher wages. Mary cannot get around it. As you can imagine, her husband James, who considers her the “little woman,” dismisses this.
And what follows, if not quite Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, shows Mary as a mature woman who studies economics so she can learn about business. I did not believe the ending, but the book is thoroughly enjoyable. I want to read more Reeves. Why isn’t she in print?