Monthly Archives: August 2013

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The Victorian spinster: celebrating the non-celebrity

Putting flesh on the bones of history – and of our genealogies – is something of a modern quest: in former times most ancestor-seekers were more concerned with clocking up generations, and if you could collect the odd title or historical celebrity along the way, so much the better.  Today the celebrities are at the other end of the telescope: the enormously successful BBC series Who do you think you are? shines the sparkling light of modern celebrity into dry and dusty corners; who would have thought that archivists would make prime-time television?  But now we no longer think just of extending that family tree as far back as possible: we want to understand more of the lives of our ancestors, however humble, and empathise with them.

Novels – not historical novels but those written in a different age– can significantly increase our understanding of our own historic families.  The men, women and children whose names we squint at on our computer screens all had their story.  The census return permits us to peer at a household through the window; the novelist opens the door and lets us in.

That is not to say that the novelist’s view is unbiased: reality must be bent to the writer’s will.  Some will create monsters, caricatures, or lofty heroes and heroines who could never have survived a day in the real world; but there are others who paint the humdrum with painstaking skill and make it fascinating.

Flora McDonald Mayor (1872–1932) is rightly celebrated for her masterpiece The Rector’s Daughter (1924); but an earlier work, The Third Miss Symons, written exactly a century ago,[1] tells the story of another unfulfilled, unmarried late Victorian woman, one of the many ageing daughters we see hanging on at home from one census return to the next.  Henrietta Symons is no heroine – emotional deprivation has soured her, and having lost one near-promise of marriage through the vanity of a prettier sister, bad temper blights any further chances.  At forty she realises with a jolt that since completing her education she

had not merely lost all the qualities she had had as a child, but had gained none from age and experience to take their place.

With no need to earn a living, in her latter years Henrietta drifts joylessly around Europe before dying at 63, ‘quietly and dully’, not quite deserted by her family but not much valued by them either.  So convincing is the portrayal that at the end of the novel one almost reaches for the census indexes to look her up – and of course she is there, under a thousand different names.

F M Mayor is a vocal narrator, often comparing her Victorian subjects with her own modern world of 1913.  Henrietta Symons is not a self-portrait, although the author lost her fiancé to typhoid in 1903 and never married.   Her own life was devoid of all glamour (she had tried unsuccessfully to be an actress when young) and her skills were not recognised during her lifetime.   Nevertheless, like today’s celebrities, she shines her strong light upon the past, not only on the generation of which she writes but on her own times, and for this we must thank her.

[1] F M Mayor, The Third Miss Symons (1913: reprinted, Virago Press, 1980).