This 1912 novel by E.F. Benson focuses on the people of a little English town who don’t seem to have much to do except to watch each other and gossip about who is dining with whom and when. Mrs. Ames (Amy) starts off a big round of gossip when she decides to host a dinner party at which certain wives and husbands of the town are invited to come without their spouses, allowing for, she hopes, more lively conversation.
It turns out that her own husband, Lyndhurst, becomes caught up in attraction to Millie Evans, his wife’s young and attractive cousin. Her doctor husband is often busy with his work, leaving her on her own, and so she soaks up Lyndhurst’s attention. It’s all very innocent, at least at first, but Mrs. Ames is suspicious and decides to do what she can to maintain her husband’s interest.
I haven’t read Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, but my understanding is that they’re light stories about social rivalries and ambitions, and that’s what this book is as well. But it’s also getting at some interesting ideas about the role of women and the bonds of marriage. Amy Ames is about 10 years older than her husband, and her age causes her considerable consternation, even though she appears to be in better health than he is. When a young and attractive rival shows up, the only thing she sees to do at first is to try to make herself look younger, coloring her hair and treating her skin, both of which open herself up to gossip. But so much of her life is about seeking the attention and affection of other people, especially her husband. What else can she do when she sees her husband’s affections drifting away, leaving her open to ridicule and even more vicious gossip.
Eventually, however, Mrs. Ames finds a new interest and takes up the cause of the suffragettes. I’m not quite sure what to make of Benson’s attitudes toward the suffragettes. The one demonstration Mrs. Ames organizes is something of a disaster. Yet the work gives her something meaningful to focus on, as she realizes when she reflects on her past efforts at beautification:
She had taken so much trouble with so paltry a purpose. And yet that innocent and natural coquetry was not quite dead in her; no woman’s heart need be so old that it no longer cares whether she is pleasing in her husband’s eyes. Only today, it seemed to Mrs Ames that her pains had been as disproportionate to her purpose as they had been to its result; now she longed to take pains for a purpose that was somewhat deeper than that for which she softened her wrinkles and refreshed the color of her hair.
In the end, though, this is not a book about a woman finding a new purpose through political action. Instead, political action and the strength she found in speaking up in that arena enables her to find the strength to speak up for her own marriage. So the narrative neither exactly endorses nor rejects the cause of women’s suffrage. It’s not a main concern of the narrative — more of a means to an end. But, in 1912, that might not be so bad.