Novella a Day in May #21

The Third Miss Symons – FM Mayor (1913, 144 pages)

FM Mayor tells the life story of Henrietta (Etta) Symons, from birth to death at the latter part of the nineteenth century. Despite doing this in such a short space, she manages an in-depth portrait of an unappealing woman.

“At five her life obtained its zenith. She became a very pretty, charming little girl […] When she was eight her zenith was past, and her plain stage began.  Her charm departed never to return.”

Her charm departs and what is left is a grumpy woman, ordinary and without any redeeming talents or qualities. FM Mayor is compassionate towards Etta, but clear-sighted and unsentimental.

“This was the problem: Why was it that people did not love her? – she to whom love was so much that if she did not have it, nothing else in the world was worth having.”

It’s certainly true that Henrietta is treated unfairly by people and experiences injustice, but it is also clear that if only she could be a little more pleasant to people, her life would be vastly improved. The Third Miss Symons is most definitely an example that you get back what you put out in life, and what Henrietta gets back is distance and indifference at best.

“She would have been astonished if she had known what an infinitesimal difference she made to their lives”

Yet it is not a depressing tale, although it certainly veers towards it at times. For a start, Mayor has taken a woman so easily disregarded in art, literature and society and given Henrietta her own story. She is the waspish spinster, the homemaker (for her parents and brothers), unmarried, childless, failure even in her attempts to do charitable good works. For centuries the judgement from society has been that such women have no value. Yet Mayor, in her concentration on Henrietta, insists that her value is recognised, and that there is acknowledgement of the society and culture that has contributed towards Henrietta’s frustrations.

“throughout her fairly long, dull life Henrietta was always cursed with her tidy little income.”

“Bad health is another resource for unoccupied women, and it certainly occurred to her as an occupation, but she realised that it and roving cannot be combined, and of the two she preferred roving.”

Henrietta can only really concentrate on her misery. If only she had a vocation, she would be different and her life would be different. But Mayor will not let Henrietta or the reader off so easy. Henrietta will remain unfulfilled.

“She was not one of those women whom nothing will satisfy but marriage; on the whole she did not care very much for men. She wanted what she had always wanted, something to love and something to love her.”

I couldn’t help thinking she should have become a dog breeder.

Mayor is entirely non-didactic and the portrait of Henrietta is unblinking, but the sadness is rescued from harshness by a good dose of humour.

“When in doubt, go abroad. She went abroad again for three months. Her companion was picked up from nowhere in particular, an odd woman like herself. They went to Italy. Neither of them cared in the smallest degree for sculpture, architecture, painting, archaeology, poetry, history, politics, scenery, language or foreigners.”

The Third Miss Symons is a compassionate, wise novel, psychologically astute and ultimately very moving. If you’d like to spend some time with grumpy, intractable Henrietta, and I highly recommend you do, you can read the novel at Project Gutenberg here.

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12 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May #21

    • I veered between finding it really sad & then thinking things were ok after all! I think my reading of it would be very much influenced by my mood – if I was feeling fragile I’m sure it would have me in floods of tears! I’m pretty sure I have The Rector’s Daughter in the TBR so it’s great to hear you enjoyed it.

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