Monday, March 12, 2012

The Third Miss Symons by Flora Macdonald Mayor

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1913

Genre: Fiction, Women's History

Topics: Spinsterhood, Relationships, Women


I came across The Third Miss Symons by accident. I was browsing GoodReads for similar reads to The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim and came across a list of Virago Modern Classics which I thought might be available in the public domain. One of the books that was available was this short novel by Flora Macdonald Mayor. As I instantly trust Virago Modern Classics as an imprint of books that usually interest me, I couldn’t resist picking up the Project Gutenberg version of this novella. Since then, I found out it has also been released as a Girlebook (of which the cover is shown on the left).
The Third Miss Symons is a short book of 88 pages, in which Mayor sets out the life of Miss Henrietta Symons, the third daughter of parents who dislike their children and the effort they require. Especially Etta, or Henrietta, is disliked by them. They quickly give up on making an effort on the social market for her, as she is plain in comparison to the other daughters. Henrietta remains single her whole life, looking on from the sidelines while her other 3 sisters marry (not necessarily happy marriages) and fulfil their role as women as wives and mothers. Etta is spared the faith of some single women in that she has enough money to live a comfortable life, and we follow her on trips to the continent and visits to her family. However, Henrietta is never really happy, she feels lost in social situations and often becomes disagreeable. If people show the slightest bit of interest in her, she clings to them for affection, and ends up suffocating their relationship. And most of all, she’s searching for a goal in life now that the path of motherhood remains closed to her.
This book reminded me a lot of Consequences by E.M. Delafield and what I expect to find in Rachel Ferguson’s Alas Poor Lady. It tells of the fate of single women at the beginning of the twentieth century, of their being viewed as aimless and awkward, and often a burden to the people around them. Like Alex Clare in Consequences, Henrietta is socially awkward and yet always longs for affection. However, Henrietta is more difficult to like than Alex, since Etta often lashes out at the people who try to help her in their own faulty ways. For part of the book Henrietta is painted in a negative light to such an extent that I wondered what exactly Mayor was trying to tell us: that women who are single and consequently unhappy, only have themselves to blame? However, having finished the book, I do not think that was Mayor’s intention at all. Yes, she does blame Henrietta for situations in which she was at her most disagreeable, but she also asks sympathy for Etta’s situation of social isolation, in which everyone she cares even a little about is too caught up in their own lives to pay much attention to her. In the end, Henrietta reforms, and tries to do better on the social front, and slowly, at least one of her sisters learns to understand Etta’s pain:
“But if she had had the chance she wouldn’t have been unlovable. She was capable of greater love than any of us, and she never had the chance. If there is any justice and mercy in the world how can they allow a poor, weak human creature to have so few opportunities, such hard temptations, and when it yields to temptation to suffer so cruelly? And now I am to go back, and be happy with Herbert and the boys, and to feel quite truly that I did everything I could, I can’t bear it.”
I am sad to say I didn’t love this book as I did others on the same topic. Henrietta is a little too unlikeable, and the story a little too short, to care as deeply for her as I did for Alex Clare, for example. I would recommend Consequences over The Third Miss Symons. But, as a companion read this works really well, and I cannot wait to discover more novels from this time period about “spinsters”.