Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The gentlewomen (Talbot) 196

I pulled this book off the shelf after Simon T reviewed The life and death of Harriet Frean and talked about books dealing with the theme of the life of the spinster with her mother. This book doesn't quite fit into this category, as the main character Miss Bolby is a governess and no longer lives with her mother, but we see that she is heavily influenced by her mother and her upbringing.

The book is set in wartime England and deals with the character of Miss Bolby, who arrives to be governess to the titled Rushford family. She is acutely conscious of her status, thinking it to be elevated due to her colonial upbringing, and one of the main themes of the book is class consciousness and her inability to get beyond her belief that she might have been in a better position than governess; unlike her sisters she has not married, and on her father's death is forced to seek employment. But her desire to be part of the gentitlity is just not possible given the changes to the class structure wrought by the war.

There is not a huge amount of plot to the book, its interest is in the description of the wartime world and the effects that it is having on class. I found it slightly confusingly structured as Talbot frequently flips back to the past, to describe Miss Bolby's childhood, and past circumstances of other characters.

Laura Talbot seems to have been an interesting character; she was the daughter of Viscount Ingestre, and was married four times. Two of the marriages ended with the death of the husband, and the final marriage only lasted two years, ending when both of the couple were killed in a plane crash. The second husband to die was the writer Patrick Hamilton.

It's only been published once by Virago, in 1985, although the novel was originally published in 1952. I own the green cover above.


  1. This sounds up my street.... never heard of it. I didn't realise governesses were around much during the war?

  2. I am definitely going to look for this during my second hand bookshop trawls. I love novels set during/around the War. The theme of spinsters seems to be popular at the moment - I am reading The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor. Sadly, not a Virago edition. I will have to read the Third Miss Symons soon as well.

  3. Simon - no I didn't either, it seemed a bit unusual, and possibly a bit implausible. But the whole household set up was quite strange.

    Bloomsbury Bell - I have Rector's Daughter, also in a non VMC edition on loan to read. I can't decide whether to read it in that edition for this blog or to hold out for a green one!

  4. *sigh* I've just checked Amazon and their copies are ridiculously expensive, and the public library doesn't have it. Grr!

  5. I enjoyed this book though the main protagonist was completely unlikeable. She's a bitter and snobish governess working at a decaying and crumbling old house in World War II. The dialogue is scathing and the descriptions of life in war time intriguing. Definitely a must for virago readers.