Claire and Verity are hosting their third Persephone reading extravaganza (on the off chance that this is news do go and have a look; there are a whole lot of competitions going on to win books and although it seems wrong to have a favourite Verity’s picture test is especially brilliant.) I normally stand back in a state of mild admiration for people who join in; I was going to say challenges but on reflection join in covers it, it’s not my strongest point. This kind of celebration though works even for people like me. I like Persephone books, I have unread Persephone books, why not read some Persephone books...
‘The Mystery of Blencarrow’ by Mrs Oliphant (I like the formal titles that Persephone grace their authors with) was a purchase from my last visit to the shop back in November, it’s been the next book I’ll read almost ever since. I loved ‘Miss Marjoriebanks’ but despite having turned up a few more Carlingford chronicles since I’ve got no further than an abortive attempt with ‘Hester’ when it comes to reading Oliphant. Still a pair of novellas can hold no terrors about lapsing concentration ‘The Mystery of Blencarrow’ is paired with ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond’ and both have reignited my passion for the hard working and prolific Mrs Oliphant.
Both stories deal with the breakdown of relationships and the lack of options for a woman in an unsatisfactory marriage before divorce became possible. Mrs Blencarrow’s mystery is not much of a surprise – a widow still in the prime of her life marries in haste only to repent at leisure. For good enough reasons she keeps the fact of her marriage a secret but these things have a habit of catching up with you and it doesn’t look good for the poor woman. What Oliphant makes very clear is the potential cost of Mrs Blencarrow’s mistake. Marrying beneath her station means not just a loss of status but the loss of her children. Legally she is the property of her husband and expected to obey him in all matters – his interests must come first. Her children however seem to belong to her late husband’s estate to be cared for in the same way that the land is, she is not their sole guardian and it’s entirely within the power of her brothers to remove them from her if they should judge it appropriate.
Caught between a husband who neither loves nor needs his wife and children who adore and depend upon their mother what is Mrs Blencarrow to do, where does her true duty lie? I think I’m making this sound more melodramatic than it is – what really struck me was how matter of fact it all was and how terrifyingly limited a woman’s life could be by convention.
“Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond” deals with a couple just past their prime. A prosperous, well liked couple, whose eldest children are just entering adulthood whilst the youngest are still in the nursery – a good wife who interests herself in her husband’s comforts, a kind and loving father who’s lived an honest life until he quietly disappears. Of the two I found this the more affecting tale. The wife in this case realises that she doesn’t really want her husband back and so forgives gross selfishness on his part. Quiet separation may sound respectable enough but it seems to me that being neither wife nor widow isn’t much of a position to find yourself in. The husband of the piece puts himself in the way of fairly thorough reprisals which his wife declines to take – but had she chosen to do so I imagine the scandal would be worse than the chosen course of do nothing, say nothing.
Mrs Oliphant seems calm enough about the fate of her heroines but they made my inner feminist roar; this is why we needed the vote and a voice. I’m glad I’ve finally read this book it’s been thoroughly provoking which was timely, it also fits beautifully into the Persephone tradition of confounding my expectations – for every happy, cosy, read there seems to be something a little darker. This book is sending me to bed happy that my life has more choices than boundaries.