Sunday, 19 June 2016

'A Lady & Her Husband' - Amber Reeves

There are few greater literary treats than the bi-annual publication of a few new books from the wonderful Persephone Books in London. And this re-issue of the 1914 novel A Lady And Her Husband by Amber Reeves is, of course, no disappointment.

Amber Reeves had a fascinating life story, not least of all because she was the muse for the character Ann Veronica in HG Wells' 1909 suffragette novel of the same name. (I wrote about Ann Veronica here back in February 2012.) Reeves and Wells had had an affair in which both seemed to inspire the other in equal measure, and many say that A Lady And Her Husband is Reeves' response to Ann Veronica. Having read both, it is interesting to be able to compare them. 

In A Lady And Her Husband, we follow middle-aged and privileged wife Mary Heyham who, when her youngest daughter announces her engagement, is given a gentle job with the family's thriving tea shop business to help occupy her time. This job involves going around the tea shops with a secretary and checking on the welfare of the many young ladies who work in the shops. But what happens is that Mary's consciousness is rapidly raised to socialist values and the awful treatment that the waitresses and staff endure at the hands of her mean-spirited husband, who also pays them very meagre wages. And in turn, this opens Mary's eyes to her own culpability in the mistreatment of the waitresses and she vies to do all she can to turn things around. Inevitably, this ties in with her waking up to the state of her own marriage and treatment within it.

One recurring factor in the novel is the way that Mary's suffocating and tedious husband James, who can best be described as a phenomenal bore, repeatedly refers to Mary as "little mother", "old mother", "the absurd old lady" and so on. He repeatedly belittles her opinions, plays down her intellect, stifles her views, ages her, and tries to remind her that she is weak, sickly and infirm (she is not). In fact, this presentation of Mary from James is so enduring and repetitive throughout the book that I was truly stunned to learn two-thirds of the way through that Mary is in fact only 46 years old. I had to put the book down at this point, flick back to earlier sections to check I had read passages referring to Mary correctly, and then re-read the passage when she reveals her age. I felt truly incensed on her behalf.

Ultimately, Mary is in a very privileged position. Thanks to her husband's philanthropy, she is extremely wealthy. So much so that when she decides to leave the family home and seek some solitude for a while in a rented flat in Chelsea, she has the funds and resources to do so seemingly within the space of a few hours. There is no recognition that Mary is in an unusual and fortunate position to be able to do this, and I found this a little frustrating, given how common Mary's treatment must have been in many marriages of the time. 

While A Lady And Her Husband is perhaps not a compulsive page-turner of a book, and it definitely has various ebbs and flows to the narrative, it is still a fascinating story. However, I would have liked to learn more about the young women who worked in the tea shops, and to find out what became of the troubled waitress Florrie (to whom several chapters are devoted early on, but then she disappears from the story). To me, the characters within the tea shops were among the most intriguing and curious and I'm now led to wonder if there are more novels that delve into the early 20th Century phenomenon of tea shops as a new and acceptable space for women in public (women who had previously been denied unchaperoned public places).

But as always, Persephone Books does not disappoint and having read this, I will definitely be seeking out more from Amber Reeves. Although something tells me that Persephone themselves may well see their way to reprint further books from her in the future.

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