Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Miss Browne's Friend - F. M. Mayor

When I first started blogging I was reading a lot of Virago Modern Classics, 12 - 13 years ago was a good time to be collecting the old editions, one way or another almost every title I've wanted has turned up in a charity or second hand book shop - things I just don't see anymore. That's how I found all three of the F.M. Mayor titles that Virago had printed (The Rector's Daughter, The Squire's Daughter, and The Third Miss Symons). It was also around the same time that Susan Hill recommended 'The Rector's Daughter' somewhere and there was a lot of discussion about it and Mayor going around at the time. 

I suppose she's probably fallen back into relative obscurity again now, which is a shame because she's a remarkable writer and it's a real shame that her books are not all properly in print at the moment. There is a collection of ghost stories I'd very much like to read - 'The Room Opposite and Other Tales of Mystery and Imagination'. One of these stories; 'Miss de Mannering of Asham' is available in the Virago Book of Ghost Stories and The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales - either of which are worth having around (or even both, as I find I have) reading it really makes me want to read the rest of them. There's an early collection of short stories written under a pen name - 'Mrs Hammond's Children' which I know nothing at all about.

'Miss Browne's Friend', just republished by Michael Walmer as part of his Zephyr series, originally appeared in 4 parts in the Free Church Suffrage Times between June 1914 and March 1915 which puts it in the same period as 'The Third Miss Symons', also very short. 'Miss Browne's Friend' is hardly even a novella, but it's very good and deals squarely with Mayor themes, though maybe with a bit more humour than in her other novels (though the humour is there in Miss de Mannering of Asham). 

If I wasn't so stony broke I'd have felt guilty accepting this as a review copy and denying Michael the cover price in the process, but as it stands I'm just really grateful I'm able to read it and add to my sense of Mayor as a writer. 

Miss Browne is one of the army of well meaning spinsters that 40 years later Barbara Pym would write about. Her family depend on her but don't much appreciate her; her life is full of self sacrifice and good work. It's the good work that leads her to Mabel, inmate of a rescue home. The language is hazy and the circumstances vague, but we can assume that some young man has helped Mabel get into trouble. 

Miss Browne is struck by the girl's beauty and is enthusiastic about officially befriending her. As a mentor she's doomed to swift and recurring disappointment - Mabel is a force of nature unlikely to be contained in domestic service, but the story ends with an unexpected twist. 

In some ways I find this a precursor of The Rector's Daughter in that both feature women that on the surface might seem to have fairly empty, unsatisfactory lives, but in the end do not. Or at least I certainly don't think they do. They may be disappointed by aspects of their lot, who amongst us isn't from time to time, but these are not empty lives, they're not untouched by love or satisfaction, and Mayor gives Miss Browne an unexpected dignity. 

'Miss Browne's Friend' is a perfect gem of a story with the perfect mix of pathos and humour about it, it's available directly from Michael Walmer's website along with quite a few other interesting things, and honestly, read it if you possibly can. 


  1. It's great, isn't it, and you're spot on about the mix of pathos and humour. I don't think I've read any of her other books but I really will have to. And why is it that there was a phase of VMCs turning up in charity shops? Like you, I haven't seen any in ages!

    1. Regarding the VMC's I think it was probably a mix of all those people who were buying them in the 80's having a clear out, and it being the last moment before places like goodreads made them particularly collectable, a new generation discovered them, and ebay etc seemed like a better place to sell them. I'm glad I got mine in good time as there are things that would certainly not get reprinted now. The only one I'm missing that I really hope to turn up one day is Barbara Comyns 'The Skin Chairs'.

      Mayor is definitely worth reading, Miss Browne's Friend shows how much she can do in a short story. The more I think about it (I guess Mabel's fate was necessary in a church publication) the more touching the relationship between Mabel and Miss Browne is, they both want the other to be happy for purely altruistic reasons, and if they don't always succeed Mabel try's just as hard in her way as Miss Browne does.

  2. Thanks so much for this Hayley. I think your point about Miss Browne's dignity at the end is an important one. Such an up and down relationship between them, and so much humour, but there's real poignancy at the climax, and a heartfelt last thought from Miss Browne.

    1. She gets a lot into a short novella! It's not every writer who could take that ending and not make it a sentimental mess, but Mayor gives us something real in the genuine, if exasperated, affection between her 2 women which makes Mabel jump off the page too.