In which Etta Symons whiles away her life - in essence a novel about the Surplus Woman but on a deeply personal level. Sadly Mayor only wrote three novels, reissued by Virago over the last few years, but now sadly all out of print again (though easy and cheap to come by second hand).
The Third Miss Symons is the first of these three, and though not her masterpiece, and really only a novella in length, it’s a powerfully moving book. Henrietta Symons is the third, a middle daughter, in a large Victorian family, the good fairies do not visit her cradle; she is gifted with neither beauty, charm, grace, nor good temper. Her arrival in the family has no novelty, and from these inauspicious beginnings she fails to make anything of her life.
She has no higher ambition or calling then to love and be loved, but the chances eludes her. Her more successful sisters grow up, marry, and move on with their lives. When her mother dies she tries to take her place as the angel in the house, but it is not to be - she hasn’t the trick of creating domestic harmony, her father re-marries and she is cast out, though well provided for, into the world. This for me is the crux of the novel. What is a woman to do when she doesn’t have to make a living, nobody wants her, and she has no vocation? In Etta’s case the answer is nothing. She takes herself off into exile, wandering between hotels, ticking off the correct sights to see, playing endless games of patience to pass the time.
Underlying everything else is the assumption that if a man cannot see the value in a woman sufficient to want to marry her, then society sees no value either and she is a failure. It would be wonderful to say that this attitude was left in Etta’s late Victorian world, but sadly it was not. Mayor’s work keeps its power precisely because so little has changed. A woman with a partner, any partner, is more successful than one without. It’s possible to empathise with unlovable Etta because she realises her faults, she can’t or won’t change them, but her self awareness offers the reader both a way in, and a mirror to hold to their own personality. I think we see that had Etta ever been loved by anyone in any capacity her life would have been transformed into something with meaning. She never blames any of those who owed her more for failing her, and thus becomes a sort of heroine. Please find and read this book Mayor’s work has too much food for thought to be allowed to slip back into obscurity.