This 1952 novel by Laura Talbot is about a snob — it says so right in the epigraph, which is a dictionary definition of the word. The snob in question is Miss Bolby, a gentlewoman who prizes her connections above all things and makes a point of showing them off as much as she can. Her obsession makes a sad sort of sense, given that her family fell on hard times and she had to become a governess instead of the singer she longed to be. Her constant remarks on her background, including her birth in India, may be a way to make up for the fact that she sees herself as “A failure, who had not lived fully in any sphere — who had always lived upon the fringe.
As The Gentlewomen opens, Miss Bolby is preparing for a new position as governess to the Rushfords, an old family with a large home in the country. Like many others during the war, they are cutting back on servants and other luxuries, so Miss Bolby will have to make her own bed. But, on the whole, it’s a comfortable existence. And Miss Bolby is pleased to learn soon after she arrives that a neighbor, Lady Archie, knows the family that her beloved sister, who now lives in India, married into. She no doubt hopes that the connection will elevate her own status, living as she does on the boundary between servant and family member.
Another gentlewoman who resides in that boundary-land is Miss Pickford, who comes to the house to work as a secretary. She’s dowdy and a little deaf and the daughter of a vicar, making her background not as grand as Miss Bolby’s, at least to Miss Bolby’s mind. She immediately sees Miss Pickford as competition, and the obliging Miss Pickford lets her have her way, even when her way makes little sense.
The main plot is interspersed with flashbacks, usually from Miss Bolby’s perspective as she lreaches back in time to recall the events that brought her where she is or the connections that she believes will ultimately raise her status. At times, the timeline gets confusing, as the flashbacks come out of nowhere. There are a few too many characters to keep up with as well. The book is at its best when it focuses on the present-day drama with the Rushfords.
The end of the book gets a lot more dramatic than I expected when I started. The build-up to the ending and the ensuing fallout is pretty satisfying, and I even got a chuckle out of seeing Miss Bolby through others’ eyes for a moment.