Original date of publication: 1952
My edition: 1986 (Virago Modern Classics)
Why I decided to read: it was on the list of Virago Modern Classics
How I acquired my copy: Ebay, June 2010
The Gentlewomen is one of the first books I added to my TBR list when I first heard about Virago Modern Classics back in May (how come I’d never heard about them before then?). This particular VMS tells the tale of Roona Bolby, a middle-aged governess who styles herself as a “gentlewomen.” She gets a situation with the daughters of Lady Rushford. It’s wartime, but the old attitude towards governesses still stands. Miss Bolby places great stress upon her genteel connections and Indian background, but she can’t quite launch herself out of the in-between ground that governesses occupy.
Miss Bolby is perhaps one of the most detestable characters I’ve come across in a really long time. She is one of the most conceited, snobbish, and rude characters I’ve ever seen. The reader isn’t really supposed to like her; but oddly enough, towards the end of the book, you kind of feel the tragedy of Miss Bolby’s situation, especially since Miss Bolby constantly dwells on the past and what might have been. This feeling is enhanced by a series of flashbacks, which I thought kind of ruined the narrative but thankfully drop off as the narrative progresses. Miss Bolby takes herself completely seriously, but everyone else mocks her behind her back. I do wish, however, that there had been some comedy to Miss Bolby’s character.
Much more sympathetic, but definitely a lesser character, is Miss Bolby’s nemesis, the new secretary Miss Pickford. Miss Pickford is of a similar age to Miss Bolby, but they couldn’t be more different from one another, and this contrast is what makes the novel so interesting. There’s a whole lot of tension that builds and builds and builds until that perfect scene at the end. Inevitably, tragedy will happen—and all because of a relatively simple misunderstanding precipitated by one of Miss Bolby’s charges. This is an absolutely stunning novel, well worth a read.