After ‘No Surrender’ I wanted more vaguely Victorian feminism, ‘Red Pottage’ was close to hand (on top of a pile of books waiting to find a home) and as stuck-in-a-book had said such nice things about it as well I picked it up. From the moment I discovered Wilkie Collins I’ve been consciously attracted to Victorian novels, especially the ones that have stayed the course and stayed in print – classics aren’t classics for nothing. It’s the one thing I really miss about old Virago, they don’t really print nineteenth century titles anymore, and though heaven knows there’s really no need to see another version of a Bronte book a few more Mary Cholmondeley’s wouldn’t go amiss.
I have tried to find out a little more about Mary but didn’t get very far; her Wikipedia entry is brief and a little sad, some of her other books are still available either for e-readers, or at prohibitive expense in paper versions, the sort that have no blurb and demand a leap of faith I just can’t afford to make. ‘Red Pottage’ is the book that made Cholmondeley into something of a celebrity (back in 1899), is described as a satire (none of her other novels seem to be) and is for all I know the only one worth reading.
But it really is worth reading – if you ever wondered how people managed before television this is the answer, big absorbing books with moral dilemmas, an extensive cast of characters, and plenty of sensation. ‘Red Pottage’ would make a splendid miniseries, is in fact so full of lush descriptive scenes that I half felt I was watching it rather than reading.
The action opens with Hugh Scarlett, young man about town, deciding to break things off with his married mistress and coincidentally falling in love at first sight with Rachel West. Unfortunately he’s too late with the mistress, her husband has already guessed what’s going on and has determined on his revenge. The two men are to draw spills, the one who picks the shorter has 5 months in which to do away with himself (it would have been 4 but for the partridge season). Hugh picks the short straw and is sentenced accordingly but will he have the strength of mind to see it through? His rival Lord Newhaven doubts it and so sets another trap for Hugh...
Meanwhile there’s Rachel, orphaned and destitute she’s been earning a hard living as a secretary but has recently come into a fabulous fortune and has returned to society. Along with money Rachel has the gifts of compassion and being an excellent listener; not inconsiderable attractions. She also has a best friend – Hester Gresley. Hester has imagination, excellent breeding, and a gift for writing – she too, despite being physically ordinary, is a woman men are attracted to, but seems to have decided on a life of work. Hester has had a sheltered upbringing in the care of an aunt who was particularly careful of whom she should mix with. Her aunt’s death has left her with very little money, and rather worse, the expectation that she will make a home with her brother and his family.
The Reverend James Gresley is a problem, it’s not so much that he’s a bad man, but he’s desperately narrow minded and absolutely incapable of seeing any view point but his own. In this he’s helped by an adoring wife and a social circle somewhat below that to which his sister is used. Hester is a constant irritant to her family; they in turn are breaking her health through a lack of sympathy.
There’s a lot going on in this book, some of it funny, some of it desperately poignant – the few spoilers I’ve given here come nowhere near to giving away the whole. Reading it for the first of what I hope will be a few times I was mostly struck with the Gresley family who really spring to life from the page. Cholmondeley stops just short of making James a villain or a Pooter like grotesque. He’s infuriating but human which turns out to be a powerful combination.
The relationship between Hugh and Rachel is the other great strength of the book. Rachel knows, or thinks she knows all about Hugh’s past misdemeanours. She forgives him his transgressions with Lady Newhaven, but finds it much harder to forgive his conduct over the straws which she also knows about. Events unfold in such a way that Hugh feels he’s off the hook but he allows Rachel to believe he was never on it. When she discovers the absolute truth she’s devastated and this too feels real and gives the book a power that raises it above satire.
'Red Pottage' is everything I admire and enjoy in Victorian writing, more than that finding books like this are what makes reading such a personal pleasure to me – if you think it might appeal to you at all find a copy.