Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett - Compton Mackenzie

Book one: Sylvia and Philip. I'm really not in the mood for long books at the moment and 'The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett' is quite a long book with quite small print - happily it's broken down into three parts so I thought if I tackled it a book at a time with breaks in-between it would be more manageable. So far the plan is working, I enjoyed the first section and am looking forward to more - maybe in a week or two.

The initial chapters are scene setters - Sylvia comes from a line of women with colourful pasts - something that she's mostly unaware of but will more than live up to. Sylvia's early childhood is a poor but respectable one in provincial France - until her mother dies. Her father is a weak willed gambler with fairly low moral standards - not the ideal make up for a clerk - after 'borrowing' some money he decides it might be better to return to his native England. Sylvia goes with him disguised as a boy. Life in England proves eventful, they flit from place to place leaving a trail of bills and failed scams behind them. By this time they've teamed up with another altogether more plausible con man - one who starts to take quite an interest in Sylvia as she grows up.

It's only a matter of time before Sylvia is orphaned but by the time she is she has realised that men seem to find her attractive enough for her to always have options. What follows are a series of running's away - men might want Sylvia but at 15 she doesn't really want them - and proves to be well able to take care of herself. Eventually she finds an old girlfriend of her fathers who helps her get a job in an exhibition selling Turkish delight (as you do) and it's at this point she meets Philip. Sylvia is taking a walk through a cemetery when she falls into conversation with him and he soon becomes obsessed with her. Eventually he proposes but suggests first that she spend a year at school to learn how to become an English lady - so off to school she goes. 

Sylvia is an engaging creation - a lot of this first part of the book ought to be slightly tedious but it's not. Mackenzie is smart to make her uninterested in the men who pursue her - she effectively deals with a would be rapist by biting a hole in his lip, and Philip's attraction for her is based around his education and conversation. She understands that he wants more than conversation but again it's with a certain lack of enthusiasm. At school she becomes her age - 16 - and embraces life as a schoolgirl along with the female friends she makes there. Philip who's posing as her guardian becomes a somewhat more sinister figure as Sylvia turns back into a child but despite misgivings she goes ahead with the marriage which is predictably disastrous until she runs away again - this time into prostitution.

It's not as salacious as it sounds (and the gist of this is on the back blurb too if you think I'm being spoiler heavy) the last page has a killer close and it's going to be fascinating to see what Mackenzie does with Sylvia next...


  1. Thank you. I hadn't ever thought to find out what Compton Mackenzie had written beyond Whisky Galore, Monarch of the Glen, and diaries. Now I've looked I find he's a far more interesting author than I realised and, though I'm intrigued by this book, I've orders the rather shorter Carnival, from 1912, from the library.

  2. I read that he was quite patchy but I still look out for his books - this one is a peach, will be interested to see what you think of Carnival and if it's worth hunting out.

  3. I have Sinister Street to read for my century of books but it's interesting to see what other, lesser known books MacKenzie wrote. Sylvia sounds rather intriguing so I'll have to keep an eye out for this. :)