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Review: Alas, Poor Lady, by Rachel Ferguson

Pages: 463

Original date of publication: 1937

My edition: 2006 (Persephone)

Why I decided to read:

How I acquired my copy: Persephone catalogue, January 2011

Born in 1870, Grace Scrimgeour is the youngest daughter in a large, not-wealthy Victorian family. In an age and society where women were defined by their marital status, the Scrimgeours fail to make any provision for marriage for their younger daughters—Grace, Queenie, and Mary. One of the sisters becomes a nun; the others marry; but the focus is on the spinsters who remain at home with their mother, a selfish woman who fritters away money in their large house in Kensington.

The book chronicles Grace’s life from birth, through her abortive attempts to find a husband because she’s not attractive enough, through the family’s poverty and Grace’s attempts to earn money as a governess, work that she’s completely unsuited for. It’s a desperately sad novel about what happened to unmarried women—the book opens with Grace’s end in the 1930s, living in distressed circumstances and having to depend on the charity of others. On one hand, the reader feels sorry for Grace and her circumstances; on the other, Grace does nothing to alleviate them.

I read this novel at a time when my own success or lack thereof in the dating department isn’t optimal; so maybe it wasn’t the best book for my present state of mind. It’s a very sad book about the differences between men and women in Victorian England; how women spend their lives waiting, while men go out and actually live their lives. Because the novel covers such a large chunk of time, the story jumps around at times and seems sketchy in places. Nonetheless, I thought that this was a stunning read. It’s interesting to reflect on what would have happened to women like me (the “superfluous women” that Ruth Adam described so well in A Woman’s Place) a hundred years ago.

This is Persephone no. 65. Endpaper below:


Karen K. said…
Still waiting for my copy to arrive from Persephone Books! I ordered three books and two arrived in just over a week. I hope it arrives soon, I've heard great things about it.
Danielle said…
What happens when you become superfluous through no fault of your own! I have this but might have to wait to read it--it does sound dire. At least there are other options than becoming a governess these days.

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