Alas, Poor Lady

This novel by Rachel Ferguson opens in 1936 at a town bazaar. At the event is a group of elderly men and women, formerly of the upper classes, but now in need and receiving assistance. Among those women is a Miss Scrimgeour, who came into the assistance program with nothing at all. How could this happen? The book tells the story.

The Scrimgeour family was a large one, with seven daughters and — finally — a son. The hope of that final son was, of course, the reason for the many daughters. It’s evident right from the start that to be a woman in this time in this family is a pretty rotten business. For example, as Charlotte Scrimgeour is struggling through yet another birth, the men in her life are quick to mansplain the pain away:

The act of birth was holy, the vicar always assured her, while the doctor, these days, seldom had need to remind her that pain was not to be taken seriously — like colic, for instance — when it was caused by having babies, because birth was a natural function. And men were always right. They knew. Their verdict was more final always than that of a woman.

Charlotte has so internalized these ideas that she doesn’t bother to tell her oldest daughter anything much about marriage and motherhood, so when Gertrude has her own husband and baby, she feels unprepared and betrayed.

The younger daughters are betrayed in other ways. Time, love, and resources are showered on the family’s one son, while the girls must quietly wait for whatever small opportunities come their way. They all come out and have seasons of dances and possible courtship, but only three manage to find husbands. One chooses to join a convent (and this seems almost like an act of both foresight and desperation), and three others remain spinsters.

The Scrimgeour parents give no serious thought to the fate of these three girls. As they grow older and cast about for some purpose — teaching children, starting a business, taking a job — the very idea is treated as preposterous. When Mary, the bookish and sensible daughter, offers to take over the education of Grace, the youngest, because the governess doesn’t seem to be doing a good job, her father sees no good reason to break from the ordinary way of doing things because, he says, “I can’t imagine that any little girl is going to make a tragedy out of insufficient lessons.”

Because Ferguson opened the novel with a glimpse of the future, we know that Captain Scrimgeour is wrong and that at least one of these girls will end up in poverty, and so it’s with a sense of dread that we watch the events unfold. Bad financial decisions, sudden deaths, and sheer irresponsibility leave the daughters without enough to live on. As roles reverse, and the daughters must take over the care of their elderly nurse and mother, it’s obvious that they’re digging a hole that will only get deeper.

The Scrimgeours were born to wealth that they then lost, and I suppose some would scoff at them, especially when they complain about things like estate taxes. But these daughters, especially Mary and Grace, are put in their position by forces almost entirely outside their control, given their time and the way they were raised. It is interesting to see that their nieces are better able to think ahead and plan for themselves. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they have great wealth, they are able to scrape by when times are tight. If they had different temperaments, they might have been able to fight harder to get some sort of job before things went completely south, but to say that survival must depend on a fighting temperament, especially in a time when women were taught to be anything but, seems unfair. And Mary and Grace show tremendous grit when they have to. (Queenie is a different story, and truly an irritating, but probably realistic, character for her lack of understanding of the situation.)

One question that this book raises deals with the responsibility of caring for the destitute. The Scrimgeour girls are left as they are partly because their mother couldn’t say no to a charitable appeal. Although she wasn’t much interested in helping with a fund for poor gentlewomen because she felt it was their own fault they’d come down in society. Among the next generations, the sisters and nieces who do have money (varying degrees of it) are willing to help their less fortunate sisters, but they also resent having to do it because it seems the need will never end, and they have their own needs to look out for. So it’s complicated. I was furious at the callousness of some of the sisters, yet I could understand their position, especially if they were just hanging on.

The book, overall, also shows what a grind poverty can be. Every decision requires calculation. Going to visit a family member at Christmas will mean free food for several days, but there’s the cost of transportation to consider. And the presents will need to be nicer if they’ll be opened in front of you. However, being able to buy a present at all, even a cheap one, feels like a gift. When living in one room with limited food and no entertainment, the daily newspaper becomes a treasured luxury to savor, reading even the political sections that would normally be a bore. Charitable donations tend to include hats but not stockings, so the ladies at employment agencies looking for work might look nice up top, but not down below. It’s a lot, and Ferguson captures it in grueling detail.

There’s more that I could say about this book. I thought it was an utterly absorbing scream at the world for better treatment and care for those who are left behind, for seeing the problems that are so often invisible. Although the book is specifically about Edwardian women, so much about the invisibility of poverty and the work of living while poor are still relevant. And the end of the book is both lovely and sad.

This is another excellent book from Persephone. I’m always impressed at how so many of these pretty little grey books tell such hard stories.

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5 Responses to Alas, Poor Lady

  1. whatmeread says:

    This is a sad, sad story. I really liked this novel.

  2. Jess T. says:

    I feel like I’ve read a few novels with similar plots. It is dismal and unmoving to read but I think you capture the deeper meaning in this review. Thank you!

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