“Men are my hobby—if I ever got married, I’d have to give it up.” (Mae West)

My last post was about a romantically-involved couple for Valentine’s Day; this week I thought I’d look at a single person status much distrusted throughout literature: that of the spinster. Both my spinsters are inhabitants of beautiful Bristol, which I’d like to claim was down to well thought-through post-planning on my part, but was actually a total coincidence.

My first choice is the wonderful Miss Mole, titular heroine of the 1930 novel by EH Young. Hannah is in her late thirties, alone and shabby and the envy of no-one, yet she is a robust character who finds ways to survive and even enjoy life.

“She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in the one case where she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken.”

She is not delusional, rather she refuses to see herself as others see her -and why should she?

“This capacity for waiting and believing that the good things were surely approaching had served Hannah very well through a life which most people would have found dull and disappointing. She refused to see it so: it would have been treachery to herself. Her life was almost her only possession and she was as tender with it as a mother”

There is a strong streak of mischief in Hannah Mole too, and she enjoys teasing her well-to-do cousin Lilla, who finds her a job as a housekeeper to the reverend Robert Corder and his daughters Ethel and Ruth. This is not a remotely romantic set-up though. Corder is good at his job but he is also vain and self-centred, and enjoys his position in society because it means few people challenge him. Hannah sees him unblinkingly, and he does not like her.

“it would have horrified him to learn that he could not judge a clever or plain woman fairly. A clever one challenged him to combat in which he might not be the victor and a plain one roused in him a primitive antagonism. In failing to please him, a woman virtually denied her sex and became offensive to those instincts which he did his best to ignore.”

Hannah decides to improve things for his unhappy daughters, and feels a bond with his dead wife as she sets out to do so. She will manage things successfully, but in her own inimitable way:

“Hannah was not scrupulous about truth. She was not convinced of its positive value as human beings knew it, she considered it a limiting and an embarrassing convention.”

Hannah is realistic, but also hopeful and not remotely self-pitying. We also learn early on that she is brave, rescuing a suicidal man by smashing a window. She and a fellow tenant in her boarding house, Mr Blenkinsop, conspire to improve things for the man’s family, despite appearing to communicate at cross-purposes a great deal of the time. As she makes things work out for those around her, I really wanted things to work out for Hannah too, despite a shadow from her past looming – I think I viewed her with more compassion than she allowed herself:

“The desires, the energy, the gaiety were there, but they were ruled by an ironic conception of herself”

I really enjoyed spending time with Miss Mole. It’s a gentle novel, but it also doesn’t hide away from the realities of life for single women who are no longer young and without much money in the first half of the twentieth century, and how a judgemental society limits their choices.

Secondly, a spinster who would probably have done better without much money, Rachel Waring in Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar (1982).  Rachel is in her late 40s with a boring job and a flatshare in London. Then her Great Aunt Alicia dies and leaves her a house in Bristol, and everything changes.

“And the hitherto dull, diffident, middle-aged woman who said to the taxi driver ‘Paddington please,’ felt in some respects more like a girl of seventeen setting out for exotic climes”

Rachel moves into the house and is determined to make the best of this fresh start:

“I had often discovered the secret of happiness: courage on one occasion, acceptance on another, gratitude on a third. But this time there was rightness to it – certainty, simplicity – which in the past mightn’t have seemed quite so all-embracing. Gaiety, I told myself. Vivacity. Positive thinking. I could have cheered.”

Gradually however, this vivacity spills over into something more. She becomes obsessed with the slave trade reformer Horatio Gavin who lived in her house centuries ago. She sees a portrait in a shop she believes to be him:

“I saw the portrait in the window.

I laughed out loud. I laughed right there, standing on the pavement, a spontaneous burst of laughter that was partly the effect of my ecstatic recognition of him and partly an aid to his more sober recognition of me

Wish Her Safe At Home details Rachel’s descent into serious mental illness. It is brilliantly done. Rachel begins as eccentric and gradually becomes truly unhinged. The description of seeing the portrait is a perfect example. Most of us at some point have lost our filter in public: suddenly laughing at something remembered, or saying something out loud which we didn’t mean to. There are often experiences that we believe to be serendipitous for one reason or another. But Rachel suddenly takes this experience a step further in believing the portrait recognises her.

A novel from the first-person perspective of someone who is losing their mind is a tough read. I found it really got under my skin, more than any novel I’ve read in a long time. The first-person perspective also works brilliantly in positioning the reader in a place not exactly like Rachel’s, but certainly confused and paranoid on her behalf. There is a young couple, Roger and Celia who seem to like Rachel – why? Are they after her house? Do they feel sorry for her? Are they playing her from the start? Are they completely oblivious? Rachel’s unreliable narration means we cannot be sure.

“I don’t know when the following dialogue took place. Somehow it seems cut adrift from time, like a rowboat quietly loosened from its moorings, while its occupant, entranced, oblivious to each hill or field or willow tree upon her way lies whitely gleaming in her rose embroidered silk, trailing a graceful hand and sweetly carolling beneath a canopy of green”

That passage is meant to be overblown: Rachel is such a desperate character. Her delusions are romantic and an attempt to grasp a life so far half-lived, before it is too late. There’s nothing vindictive or cruel in her, and she is so incredibly vulnerable.

“Sometimes I felt utterly convinced I had been singled out for glory.

But not always. Far more often I felt I simply didn’t stand a chance”

I’ve not remotely done justice to the power, skill and subtlety of Wish Her Safe At Home. All I can say is: read it.

To end, the trailer for the film that apparently inspired Wish Her Safe at Home. The Ghost and Mrs Muir has had a special place in my heart since childhood. In all the times I’ve seen it, it’s never occurred to me that Mrs Muir is mentally ill. Wish Her Safe at Home has made me question everything…

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28 thoughts on ““Men are my hobby—if I ever got married, I’d have to give it up.” (Mae West)

  1. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed spending time with Miss Mole. She’s definitely more feisty than the typical mousy spinster! It’s great to hear about the Benatar, too. As you know, I have a weakness for these NYRB classics, so this might be another one for the list. Apologies if I’ve missed it, but when is the novel set? The cover suggests it takes place in the past, maybe the 19th century?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Miss Mole is just great 🙂

      I think you’d really enjoy WHSAH Jacqui. You didn’t miss it the date, I should have said, because when it’s set is an interesting question. I don’t think it’s ever explicitly stated, but I think its set at the time of writing – the 1980s. It’s never questioned that Rachel will live on her own and at the start of the novel she’s earning her own living, and there are trains and cars etc. But as it progresses she starts making theses slightly anachronistic references about her gloves and hat – it all becomes part of this delusional idea that she’s a young lady courting Horatio Gavin, and so I think she starts dressing oddly, although because it’s from her point of view you’re never quite sure (until the end, when you know what she’s wearing and it’s definitely bizarre). The picture on the front is probably how she sees herself, but it’s definitely not how she is. So I think being vague about the time is all part of the portrait of Rachel – she’s out of kilter with her society but also her grasp on these things becomes increasingly tenuous.

      I really hope you read it because you’ll do a much better job than me of reviewing it & do WHSAH justice 🙂

      Like

      • How interesting! I can totally see what you’re saying about the ambiguity in time being a part of the portrayal of Rachel and the sense of dislocation she experiences from the world around her. You’re making an excellent case for this novel, Madame Bibi – it does sound very intriguing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wish Her Safe at Home sounds extraordinarily powerful. Credibly portraying a mental breakdown from the perspective of the person who is ill is quite a trick to pull off. I wonder if Benatar had some experience of this in his life, perhaps someone close to him. Excellent review, as ever, Madame Bibi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is so powerful, Susan. It’s not sensationalist and it’s terribly sad without being patronising. I found it really got to me. I don’t know if Benatar has any experience of it, but I found the female voice totally convincing too – it’s an extraordinary feat.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Miss Mole sounds lovely! I’m glad it didn’t turn into a housekeeper-employer romance. And I’m glad she didn’t go mad either! Spinsters rarely come off well in literature, when of course in reality they’re the best people… 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I didn’t know that Wish Her Safe At Home had been inspired by The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Interesting. When I read it, I dwelled on the parallels between Rachel and Blanche DuBois, from A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, I said this in my review: “Rachel Waring answers a question I’ve always had in the back of my mind about Blanche DuBois: would it have been so hard to accommodate her desire for magic? The answer is yes. Seen from the inside, her desire makes a dreamy, romantic kind of sense. Seen from the outside, however, such desire is ludicrous, irritating, and eventually just too much to have to put up with on a daily basis.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There’s a lot to be said for a life without a man, I think, and it does sound like these books show a couple of possible options… I have a copy of the Benatar (or I did – I don’t quite know where it is at the moment….) and I think the descent into madness is definitely a road to be avoided. Sounds like this one rattled you a bit, Madame B – I think it would me too. Great post, as always! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Neither of my choices is the best advert for spinsterhood, I must admit! Miss Mole is brilliant but her life would be easier with a man, not because she herself needs one, but because society at the time made life difficult for single women.

      The Benatar really did rattle me Kaggsy, it’s so well written and the positioning of the reader is so clever. I hope you like it if you find your copy!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love Miss Mole so much, I have been looking for an excuse to re-read it, one of these days I will. So glad you enjoyed it too. E H Young is so good at shining a light on the realities and women’s lives whether that is in marriage or spinster hood. I have a copy of Wish her Safe at Home tbr looking forward to it very much now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Miss Mole is great, I’m not surprised you’re a fan Ali.I’ll definitely be re-reading it too at some point. In fact EH Young is becoming a real favourite – I’ve three of her novels left in the TBR which I’m so looking forward to.

      I hope you enjoy Wish Her Safe At Home when you get to it – I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

      Like

  7. Hannah Mole sounds like someone I would like a lot, and Rachel sounds like someone who would fascinate me. They are both going on my list!

    I recently read a book about a spinster – The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – which was much more depressing than these. I liked it very much, of course. 😉 I’ll be writing about it soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hannah’s great, and Rachel is compelling if exhausting! I hope you enjoy them Naomi.

      It’s weird that Wish Her Safe at Home isn’t depressing, because Rachel is so unwell. But because it’s from her point of view and she’s not depressed, the novel doesn’t have that tone. I’ll look forward to your review of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Both of these novels sound good to me. A spinster myself I never tire of reading about our variously colored lives.

    I’m new to your blog and am following now. Looking forward to more reviews and such. I hope you’ll follow me as well at:

    notesfromthereader’snook on WordPress.com

    Thanks!
    Karen Virginia Flaxman

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am definitely getting Miss Mole, shabby but feisty sounds like something I can aspire to. I have the first half down already! I like the idea of her not getting together with a man in the end, I love the Miss Read books but in the last ever one she went and got romantically involved in her 60s, after a lifetime of dodging men in favour of books, domestic freedom, nature and her cat. Boooo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Miss Mole is awesome, she’s definitely aspirational. But… I didn’t say she doesn’t get together with a man, just that she doesn’t get together with her employer 😉 I’ve never read Miss Read but she’s sounds great, I might avoid the last ever one though, and pretend it never happened 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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