this article by Sarah Waters (an introduction to Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes) that I first heard about Spinster of this Parish by W.B. Maxwell. (A William, it turns out, but not that William Maxwell.) It was only mentioned in passing, alongside F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (which sadly underwhelmed me) but it was enough to pique my interest. Luckily Oxford library has a copy in its store, and eventually I got around to reading it. It's rather extraordinary.
The action kicks off in 1920, with Mildred Parker (age 25) visiting 'old maid' Miss Emmeline Verinder (age 50) in the hopes of receiving some advice. Mildred is 'that mixture of shrewdness and innocence which makes the typical modern girl seem at once so shallow and so baffling.' She has fallen in love with a man of whom her parents do not approve - and is bewailing this state to Miss Verinder when she stops suddenly, and suggests that Mildred might not be able to help her, as she has never experienced 'the passions'...
Rewind to 1895, and Emmeline's youth. We're still in the third person, so it's not entirely Emmeline Verinder's perspective, but she is certainly taking centre stage. She is engaging in the late-Victorian social whirl, when she happens to meet celebrated explorer Anthony Dyke... and yes, dear reader, Emmeline is smitten.
In other words, he is about equal measures Tarzan and Mr. Rochester. Indeed, he borrows more than a penetrating stare from the world's most beloved bigamist - for Dyke [er, SPOILERS!], like Rochester, has a madwoman in the attic. Like poor Rochester (for we can't our brooding heroes being too cruel, can we?) Dyke was tricked into marrying a madwoman (variety of mental illness not mentioned) who is now not, actually, in an attic but in an asylum.How had he captivated her? She did not know. Was it only because he was the incarnate antithesis of Kensington; because he was individual, unlike the things on either side of him, not arranged on any pattern, not dull, monotonous, or flat; a thing alive in a place where all else was sleeping or dead? Neither then nor at any future time did she attempt mentally to differentiate between the impression he had made upon her as himself all complete, with the dark hair, the penetrating but impenetrable eyes, the record, the fame, and the impression she might have received if any of these attributes had been taken away from him. Say, if he had been an unknown Mr. Tomkins instead of a known Mr. Dyke. Absurd. The man and the name were one. [...] He was Anthony Dyke. He was her lord, her prince, her lover.
This is where things start to get a bit daring. Dyke is rather more honest than Rochester, and tells Emmeline about his wife. She, in turn, decides that their love is more important than society's morals and her parents' approval - and becomes, as it were, his mistress. This was pretty daring for the time, wasn't it? Shunned by her parents (although, to do Maxwell justice, Mr. Verinder 'was not in any respects the conventional old-fashioned father that lingered in the comic literature of the period') Emmeline takes her maid Louisa and lives elsewhere.
Being an explorer, Dyke must explore - and he's high-tailing it off to South America. They have rather a rushed emotional goodbye and he sets sail... only... wait... Emmeline has sneakily crept onboard!
This, blog-readers, is where everything goes mad.
The next section of the novel takes place in South America - and I highly doubt that Maxwell had ever gone nearer to it than Land's End. They go emerald-hunting, get lost in caves, involved in duels... it's insane, and entirely different from the novel I was expecting. Had I seen the cover (below) then I might have been better prepared for the excesses of Spinster of this Parish, which were in no way betrayed by the novel's title.
The Sheik by Ethel M. Hull was published in 1919, and was wildly popular into the 1920s - although Spinster of this Parish involves none of the disturbing rape fantasies of The Sheik, it's clear that Maxwell (and many others) were influenced by the popularity for exoticism. I, however, found this section rather tedious, and flicked through it...
Finally we are back in English society - Emmeline grows gradually less shunned, and Dyke's adventures continue abroad without her. He is determined to succeed in his quest to get to the South Pole... will he survive or not? Maxwell has rather calmed down by now, and Dyke's activities take place off stage, thankfully - instead, we see the changing views of upper-class society, and Emmeline's unwavering loyalty to her absent lover.
And yet - I enjoyed an awful lot of it. Maxwell's writing is, if not exceptional, consistently good. He is quite witty throughout, and certainly writes better than most of the authors who would warrant a similar dustjacket image. When we were in England, looking at the workings of society, it was very much my cup of tea - even if the characters were a little too good to be true. At one point I even thought of suggesting it to Persephone Books. But... I couldn't get past the insane section in the middle. The bizarre trip through South America, duels-n-all, is what will make Spinster of this Parish so memorable - but also that which lets down the overall writing, and makes it feel rather silly.
So, a strange book with which to make me blog return! If nothing else, it has taught be that one must not only forswear to judge a book by its cover - similar caution must be taken as regards a book's title.