Saturday, 1 October 2016

'A Footman For The Peacock' by Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson is one of those unfairly neglected turn-of-the-century novelists whose novels are being diligently kept alive by a variety of publishing houses. 

She first came to my attention via the 2006 Persephone reprint of her 1937 novel Alas, Poor Lady. Also via Persephone, I found the 1988 Virago Modern Classics edition of her 1931 book The Brontes Went To Woolworths, which I fell in love with first for its beautiful cover and second for its whimsical title, and finally for its magical story (you can read my review here). Later on in 2009, the same book was also reprinted by The Bloomsbury Group, an imprint of Bloomsbury, which reprints (is it still going, does anyone know?) long-forgotten turn-of-the-century titles. 

The discovery that Rachel Ferguson had been a suffragette and a leading member of the Women's Social and Political Union (an era of history that fascinates me, as regular blog readers will know) then inspired me to hunt down a few of her autobiographical novels, and I was lucky enough to track down original hardback editions of both Royal Borough (1950) and We Were Amused (1958), which I heartily recommend. Only Passionate Kensington (1939) is still out there, waiting for me to find it... 

So when I recently heard that new publishing house Furrowed Middlebrow, which is an imprint of Dean Street Press, was planning to reprint a series of forgotten novels by brilliant female authors, I was very excited. In the first volume of nine releases, there are three novels by Rachel Ferguson - of which A Footman For the Peacock is just one. 

So having now set the scene, and with the certainty that I will be writing about further Furrowed Middlebrow titles in the future... here's a short piece about A Footman For the Peacock.

This 1937 novel was considered controversial upon initial publication as it seemed to mock the privileged upper classes, those elite who were living a bizarre life of indulgence and isolation in their palatial country home - one where even the resident peacock's every whim is catered for as standard. But, as with much of Rachel Ferguson's writing, A Footman For the Peacock is a satire; a social commentary of the times. This is an era between the wars (well, World War Two starts during the narrative... although it takes the self-absorbed characters several days to realise it) when the age of the country house was dwindling and the power of the landed gentry was rapidly fading. 

In many ways, the Roundelay family who live within various quarters of the house of Delaye are reminiscent of Dorothy Whipple's classic novel about another faded country pile The Priory (republished by Persephone). In A Footman For The Peacock, the residents of Delaye are treated by Rachel Ferguson with the same lack of respect that they show to outsiders to their home. And her fantastical style of writing, which she carried off so well in The Brontes Went To Woolworths, is reminiscent here, although I feel it doesn't work quite so well with such a huge range of characters. 

I'm going to be honest: this isn't my favourite Rachel Ferguson book (and you can tell from what I've written above that I really do like her writing), but simply by judging a book by it's cover I feel certain that Furrowed Middlebrow will continue to keep reprinting lovely and fascinating novels by a variety of women who have been neglected by history. And with Rachel Ferguson's A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and Evenfield (1942) both also republished by Furrowed Middlebrow, and both still yet to be read by me, there is every hope that one or both of them will tick the Rachel Ferguson boxes that, for me, A Footman For The Peacock didn't quite manage to. But you never know, this might turn out to be your favourite Ferguson... We're all different... 

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