Mary Cholmondeley’s male antecedents are well documented since she belonged to an old county family, a cadet branch of the Marquisate of Cholmondeley. Her father, the Rev. Richard Hugh Cholmondeley, was the Rector of Hodnet, in Shropshire (as had been his father before him, as well as his maternal grandfather and great grandfather). He married Emily Beaumont, who was a neice of the then famous Bishop Heber—a connection that was frequently to be noted by reviewers of their daughter’s novels. Mary, the third of their eight children, was born at Hodnet Rectory on the 8th of June 1859. Life at Hodnet is affectionately evoked by her in Under One Roof (1918). From this family memoir her father emerges as a sociable, energetic and tolerant man, on good terms both with the local nonconformists and with his elder brother who was a canon in the Roman Catholic Church; his children found him a ‘delightful companion’ and it was he who created the home atmosphere. Mrs Cholmondeley was a much more austere and rigid person, highly intelligent but with no talents for domesticity and subject to severe depressions, which were worsened by the onset of creeping paralysis soon after the birth of her last child. The Cholmondeley children’s mothering came from ‘Ninny’, their quicktempered but utterly devoted nanny, to whom ‘Mitty’, in Diana Tempest owes many of her traits.
The five Cholmondeley daughters had a governess and received the usual home education of the period for girls of their class, supplemented, as they grew older, by lessons from their father, who found time in the mornings to ground us in Stanley, Butler, and Paley. In the evenings he read to us Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Miss Edgeworth, Jane Austen, and Stevenson. Gradually he associated us with him in all his parish work. (Under One Roof, p. 30)
As well there were frequent social gatherings, visits to the country houses of friends and relations, and regular trips to London and abroad, so, although Mary’s chronic asthma sometimes prevented her from taking full advantage of these opportunities, the family’s life was by no means a narrow one.
By the time Mary was sixteen, it had become necessary for her, as the eldest daughter, to take over the running of the household of eighteen people. In spite of this early assumption of heavy family responsibility, Mary Cholmondeley felt the need to achieve something definite for herself. At first she dreamt of becoming “a great painter”, but by her eighteenth birthday she had already completed a novel called “Her Evil Genius”:
It has taken me more than four months to write. I have thought of it night and day, lived for it almost. I am afraid it engrossed me almost too much. (…)
And yet what a pleasure and interest it would be to me in life to write books. I must strike out a line of some kind, and if I do not marry (for at best that is hardly likely, as I possess neither beauty nor charms) I should want some definite occupation, besides the home duties (…) (journal, quoted Lubbock, p. 74-5—see item 107)
This story may well have been among “the early manuscripts, including two novels”, which were consigned to the bonfire in 1896 when the family was preparing to leave Hodnet.
It was not until 1882, five and a half years after the completion of “Her Evil Genius”, that Mary Cholmondeley actually had “a small thing but mine own published, and handsomely paid for, and an opening for the disposal of fresh work” (Lubbock, p. 79). However, her real ambition was to have a novel published; she showed her work to at least two already established novelists—to Anne Thackeray Ritchie (daughter of W.M. Thackeray), who found her story “very striking and well written” but advised her to tone down the colloquialisms in her hero’s speech, and to Rhoda Broughton, who was a family friend and who passed on the manuscript of The Danvers Jewels to her own publisher, George Bentley. The Danvers Jewels was written in the winter of 188 5 during a period of “darkness and depression”. Now in her late twenties Mary Cholmondeley was hankering for a greater independence and mobility than either her Hodnet duties or her recurrent ill health allowed. Inspite of her pleasure at a letter from George Bentley in August 1886 accepting her “bright and humorous story”, she wrote a month later in her private journal:
I am constantly driven back upon myself. I seem to be checked at every point. I cannot go where I would, or among the people with whom I would associate. I am turned back, quietly, time after time, to a quiet life, monotonous, without any outlet to thought in the way of conversation, turned back to the silence of a country life, without interest in country life. (…) I would go abroad, I would go to London; I would try and escape from the yoke and the harness. As if without the yoke and the harness I could draw a pound’s weight—and as if, when I am sane, there were anything in heaven above or earth beneath I really prefer to following the Hand that points so plainly, that points in the direction my own soul prompts me to walk in. Happiness for me is work… (Lubbock, p. 84-5)
The Danvers Jewels appeared in 1887 , and was serialised in Temple Bar(as were all four of her novels that Bentley published). Sir Charles Danvers followed in 1889. Bentley had paid £40 and £50 respectively for the copyright of these two-volume novels. His interest in publishing something further by Mary Cholmondeley is shown by his offering her £250 at this time for a future three-volume work, and indeed paying £400 for Diana Tempest. “Nemesis”, as Diana Tempest was originally called, was begun in 1889; its composition was interrupted by Mary’s own severe illness and by increasing worry over the failing health both of her mother and now her youngest sister Hester, who died before its publication in 1893 and to whom it was posthumously dedicated. Diana Tempest was the first of Mary Cholmondeley’s works to appear under her own name and was an immediate success, going into three editions in nine months and staying in print throughout its author’s lifetime.
Early in 1896 Mr Cholmondeley resigned the living at Hodnet and shifted with his three unmarried daughters to London. (Essex, next in age to Mary, had married Ralph Benson; one of their children was the future novelist Stella Benson.) The move freed Mary and her sisters from the many responsibilities which had been their lot at Hodnet and increased their contact with the literary figures of the time. The Cholmondeley sisters’ ‘at homes’ at Knightsbridge and later at Leonard Place, Kensington, to which they moved after their father’s death in 1910, are recalled by Percy Lubbock in his Memoir and by Lady Ritchie in one of her ‘notes of happy things’. Other regular guests were Henry James, Howard Sturgis (who became a particularly close friend and whose Belchamber is quoted admiringly in the title story of The Romance of His Life), Rhoda Broughton, and Mary and Jane Findlater. From 1907 on, Mary and Victoria Cholmondeley regularly spent their summers in an old cottage in the village of Ufford, Suffolk.
Red Pottage was begun soon after the move to London. Mr Gresley, the narrow-minded and self-opinionated clergyman, who was to be largely responsible for the novel’s runaway success, first appeared, accompanied by his adoring wife, in A Devotee, a short novel serialised in Temple Bar from August to October 1896 and printed separately by Arnold in 1897. Red Pottage was published on 24 October 1899 and was not serialised, since Mary Cholmondeley “refused all offers for the serial rights (…), feeling that, to be fairly judged, the story must be read as a whole” (Bookman interview). Its success was immediate: TheAcademy of 18th November devoted an article to the extraordinary demand for this ‘novel of the moment’:
On Tuesday, October 24, eight thousand copies of it were offered to London, and it was also published in New York and in the Colonies. Mr Mudie desired two thousand copies for his library. The trade generally was hungry and pertinacious. Over two thousand supplementary copies were ordered on November 2, and the same on November 3. (…) On the 9th the first edition was exhausted, and large orders yet unfulfilled; but a great firm of printers had the affair in hand, and on the 15th, by the aid of their resources, a second edition of ten thousand copies was ready to be devoured. (…) Yesterday it was: “Mary Cholmondeley—you know…wrote a splendid thing called Diana Tempest, awfully interesting; you ought to read it.” Today it is: “Mary Cholmondeley…What, you don’t mean to say you haven’t read…!” And he to whom “Mary Cholmondeley” is unfamiliar will henceforth hide his ignorance like a sin. That is fame. Miss Cholmondeley is famous. In three weeks she has become so. (The Academy, 57.575)
Mary Cholmondeley herself gives an entertaining account of the varied reception given to Red Pottage in general and to Mr Gresley in particular in the preface to The Lowest Rung (1908)—the innumerable letters she received either of condemnation or delighted recognition, the denunciation “by name” from one London pulpit offset by the praise in a sermon at St. Paul’s, and the suggestion in a church newspaper that such a book could only have been written by someone who had been jilted by a clergyman .
Mary Cholmondeley wrote three more full length novels, (Moth and Rust (1902), Prisoners (1906) and Notwithstanding (1913)), all of them successful in their way although none to anything like the dramatic extent of Red Pottage. She also produced two collections of short stories (The Lowest Rung (1908 ) and The Romance of his Life (1921)), and the charming family memoir Under One Roof (1918). After the war Mary and Victoria Cholmondeley moved to 4 Argyll Road, Kensington. The Romance of his Life was Mary’s last published work; in 1921 her health began to deteriorate and she died on 15 July 1925, at the age of sixty-six.
Mudies Library Catalogue for 1928 listed all of Mary Cholmondeley’s novels. By 1935 however, she was already “a novelist of yesterday”, in the words of Muriel Kent’s retrospective in Cornhill, dropping out of print and out of sight until the current revival of interest in forgotten Victorians and the reissue of Red Pottage in 1968 introduced her to a new generation of readers.
Mary Cholmondeley’s contemporaries’ evaluation of her qualities as a writer is well summed up by her obituary notice in The Times:
Her literary style is simple and unaffected, with admirably concealed art. A severe critic might object to an occasional touch of melodrama in her plots. But in her wit and wisdom, her vein of satirical humour, her resolute refusal to turn her novels into propagandist pamphlets, and her intensive cultivation in each story of one group of characters whose little closed world is made absorbing by her artistry, she reminds us of her great exemplar Jane Austen.
A correspondent writes—
Grave, quiet, low-voiced, with a kind of gracious and dignified angularity, Mary Cholmondeley looked exactly what she was—an Englishwoman of good old stock, with a long and decent “county” history behind her. She was this, with everything that it implied; her seriousness, her fine courtesy, her deep sense of duty, were full of traditions of an honourable past. But she had added to these something entirely of her own, in quite another vein—her observant and ironic humour. (17 July, 1925)
As her obituary suggests, Mary Cholmondeley is not a novelist to whom modern readers might turn for the sake of her direct involvement in the political or social issues of her day: her books reflect the conservative values of her county background . She shows no desire for changes in the structure of the society she examines at times with such penetration; her main concern is with the moral health of individuals within that society, with their degree of self-awareness and self criticism, with their sense of responsibility to themselves and to others. In this sense, the suggested resemblance to Jane Austen is something more than the affinity regularly claimed for any competent practitioner of the novel of manners.
The oldfashioned conservatism of Mary Cholmondeley’s novels can be clearly seen in the dominant role that is taken in them by a great house and its traditions, threatened by the inadequacies of its possible heirs. However, Mary Cholmondeley’s feeling for place gives substance to what might otherwise seem a hackneyed theme. The stately homes she describes in such loving detail are based on real ones, which she knew intimately—Condover Hall, for example, where her father grew up, becomes Stoke Morton in her first two novels; Gilling Castle in Yorkshire is Overleigh in Diana Tempest. One is made to care about what will happen to Overleigh or Vandon or Hulver far more than one ever can for the aristocratic belongings of the protagonists of an ‘Ouida’ or an Elinor Glyn. Such places never become just a glamorous setting or last chapter reward for Mary Cholmondeley’s heroes and heroines, for her novels consciously reflect a strong sense of the responsibilities of the owner of a great rural estate towards an entire community, whose economic welfare is directly or indirectly dependent on him. Mary Cholmondeley does not go in for polemic, but she embodies these ideas through such things as the neglected house and distressed cottagers of Vandon in Sir Charles Danvers or the recurrent worries of Roger Manvers, the stolid, practical hero of her last novel Notwithstanding, struggling to maintain the estate of his spendthrift absentee cousin and reacting to his own inheritence with unromantic thoughts of mortgages and draining marshes and being able to “put an entire new roof on Scorby farm now, instead of tinkering at it”. Notwithstanding was published in 1913, but the story is placed by its narrator as having happened more than twenty years earlier, an indication that Mary Cholmondeley was aware that her world and its values were already becoming part of the past. An added poignancy is given to this last novel by the fact that her father had actually inherited Condover late in life, but had been forced to sell it because of lack of money.
Although not a regional novelist in the full sense of the term, Mary Cholmondeley writes accurately and evocatively about the countryside she knew—Shropshire in her earliest novels, Hampshire in Prisoners, and the Suffolk lowlands and the village of Ufford, which appears thinly disguised as Riff in Notwithstanding and Rufford in The Romance of his Life. If her characters go overseas, it is to places their author herself has been to—Paris, Fontainebleau, Teneriffe. This solid placing of characters and action in both real houses and real landscapes gives a strong feeling of believability to even her more conventional scenes.
Mary Cholmondeley’s protagonists, as one would expect, tend to belong to her own class, and here again, her inside knowledge of the manners of that class helps ensure that they are far more believable and more individualised than their fellows in countless other ‘pictures of high society’. But her novels also contain a wide range of convincingly drawn characters from lower down the social scale—such as the rich and excessively vulgar Monkey Brand and his wife Cuckoo in Moth and Rust, who are even allowed to assume tragic stature. Mitty, John Tempest’s nanny, Harry, the mental defective in Notwithstanding, and the servants , cottagers and ordinary people throughout her novels, are drawn sympathetically, but without sentimentality. The children—Molly in Sir Charles Danvers, the young John in Diana Tempest and the Gresley offspring in Red Pottage—are exceptionally lifelike and a far cry indeed from Victorian stereotypes. Indeed, they earned a special mention in many reviews: Molly, for example, is described in the Athenaeum notice of Sir Charles Danvers as “a natural, delightful, and really funny child, a rare combination in the young of fiction.” All these characters bear testimony to Mary Cholmondeley’s eye for telling detail and ear for dialogue. She frequently too makes skilful use of free indirect speech, coming at times extremely close to a stream of consciousness technique, most notably in Colonel Tempest’s self-pitying thoughts,which lead up to his abortive suicide attempt,and John Tempest’s hazy efforts to act the host towards Diana when he is far too ill to know quite what is going on.
Some of these characters were undoubtedly based, at least in part, on real people. Mary Cholmondeley acknowledges in the Hodder Williams Bookman interview that there are elements of her family’s old nurse in the Mitty of Diana Tempest, of her brother Richard Vernon Cholmondeley in his namesake Dick Vernon, the vigorous colonial of Red Pottage, and of the recently dead Hester, imagined as the writer she might have become, in that novel’s heroine. It seems very likely too that the cultured and charming Mr Alwyn of Sir Charles Danvers, with his love of old china and closeness to his parishioners, owes something to the father to whom the novel is dedicated. A possible literary antecedent of Mr Alwyn is Mr Irwine, in Adam Bede, whose name his echoes, and whose partial resemblance to Mr Cholmondeley is noted in Under One Roof. Mr Gresley, on the other hand, is a portrait of everything that Mr Cholmondeley was not. Mary Cholmondeley tells several amusing stories against herself about the problems created for her by suspected and often impossible identifications claimed for some of her less likeable characters, and one is inclined to believe the sincerity of her disclaimers, since it is improbable that as unflattering a portrait as Mr Gresley’s, for example, would have been consciously taken from a recognisable original—even from a clergyman who had “snubbed her”! However the contemporary reaction to Mr Gresley indicates the accuracy with which Mary Cholmondeley was felt to have captured a particular type. Wentworth, the “academic prig” of Prisoners also caused trouble; E.F. Benson mentions in Final Edition the resentment of his family at what they took to be an unkind portrait of their brother Arthur, until then a frequent visitor at the Cholmondeley household. But such fancied likenesses, unjustified or not, are presumably among the hazards liable to be encountered by any novelist of manners; and as Mary Cholmondeley points out in her own account of the phenomenom in the preface to The Lowest Rung:
“There is no copyright in platitudes.” They are part of our goodly heritage. And though people like Mr Gresley and my academic prig Wentworth have in one sense made a particular field of platitude their own,by exercising themselves continually upon it, nevertheless, we cannot allow them to warn us off as trespassers, or permit them to annex or enclose common land, the property and birthright of the race. (p. 19)
Although all Mary Cholmondeley’s characters are distinct individuals, in moral terms they tend to fall into two opposing categories—those with a sense of their duty both to others and to some higher ideal and those whose only motive is self. As Vineta Colby has recently pointed out, this is very similar to George Eliot’s division of characters into “drones” and “servers”; Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Thackeray, whose works all figured prominently in the Cholmondeley family’s evening reading, are other possible literary influences here. Mary Cholmondeley’s drones—such as Colonel Tempest, Mr Gresley (a drone who sees himself as a true server), Wentworth, and Aunt Harriet and Aunt Maria in her last novel—are brilliant studies in selfishness and uncritical selfsatisfaction, as good as any fictional representatives of their type.
The opposition between these two types, between those who live for self and those who serve others, is a central theme of all Mary Cholmondeley’s novels, and one which owes its dominance not just to her literary antecedents but also to the uncompromising standards of her mother.
The great uprightness and austerity of her character were combined with a certain rigidity. She impressed on us an iron sense of duty. I remember her once saying passionately, in sudden tears, “It is the only thing there is.” I recognize now how deep a debt her children owe her, how earnestly she tried to teach us to think, how she strove to make us truthful, ready to serve others, and never, never to spare ourselves. That was the great crime. Self-indulgence in any form. (Under One Roof, p. 46)
The crucial test for almost all of Mary Cholmondeley’ protagonists is whether they choose the difficult truth or the expedient lie, towards which everything except purely moral considerations impels them. Yet if this test owes something to the ideals of her mother, it is tempered by her father’s warmth and generosity of spirit, since those who pass it must then prove themselves even further by their compassionate understanding and support of the morally weak.
The most frequent criticism of Mary Cholmondeley’s novels by her original reviewers, and one repeated more recently by Vineta Colby, concerns the element of melodrama in her plots; this is usually seen as according ill with the accurate and witty observation of character and manners which is rightly considered her forte. Such evidence as we have suggests that melodrama was certainly strong in her juvenilia and early literary efforts, as it certainly was in the tales invented to amuse her younger sisters, although even these were not allowed to be completely improbable.
I was allowed a certain latitude: I might be—I often was—kidnapped by brigands during a visit to relations in Yorkshire. I came across lions in shrubberies; escaped lions of course, from menageries, not growing wild. But it was de rigueur that the adventures should be probable.
I have never forgotten how once, in a frivolous mood, not having got anything ready in the train coming home, I recounted in an off-hand manner, inventing as I went along, how I had happened to be buried alive while out sketching in a churchyard, the coffin fortunately for me having been deposited in a vault. I had not thought out my disentanglement from a situation of undeniable gravity, and with total lack of literary conscience I shamelessly affirmed that I had prised open the coffin lid with a sheet of drawing paper. At this point Hester, who had been hanging on my words with bated breath, and who had accepted with respect the statement of my decision to take a nap in an empty coffin put ready for future use in the church porch—at this point she at once assaulted me, pommelling me with her fists, shedding tears of sheer fury. Large tears rolled in silence down Victoria’s cheeks. I had wounded to the quick my two faithful little friends. I apologized, I begged to be forgiven. I, with my hair done up, ate “humble pie” to those two pigtails.
When the tears subsided I offered to go back into my coffin. I did go back into it. I don’t remember how I finally emerged from it, but I think Hester, still agitated but judicial, allowed me to have thieves coming creeping in with lanterns to break open the coffin and rob the dead, and that I got up wrapped in my shroud, to their great alarm, and stalked out. I know it all came right in the end. (Under One Roof, p77-79)
Like many other writers, including Jane Austen, Mary Cholmondeley almost certainly began to learn her craft by parodying the excesses of her fellows with the affectionate relish obvious in her own account of her storytelling efforts. Unlike Jane Austen, however, she did not exclude everything that might seem overly dramatic from her mature works. The Danvers Jewels has professional thieves and impenetrable disguises; the heroine of Sir Charles Danvers, like that of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South (and many less respectable novels), has a criminal brother lurking in the neighbourhood. However, some of the more ‘unlikely’ plot ingredients are claimed to be taken from real life incidents—Colonel Tempest’s deliberate bet against his inheriting Overleigh, which lies behind the attempts on John’s life, is one example; another is the drawing of lots between Lady Newhaven’s husband and lover, to chose which of them should commit suicide, at the beginning of Red Pottage. But as Fielding, Jane Austen and the best novelists in their tradition knew, there is a great difference between what may have happened in fact and what seems sufficiently probable to register as such in fiction. In Mary Cholmondeley’s defence it should be noted that she seldom employs sensational incidents for their own sake, but for their potential contribution to her theme. Michael’s wrongful imprisonment is a literal example of what all the other characters in Prisoners suffer, whether held captive by their own egotism, like Wentworth or Fay, or, like Magdalen, by the selfishness of others. Even in The Danvers Jewels, which relies most heavily on improbable happenings, the real focus of the novel is the ambitious use of a fallible narrator, the pompous and unperceptive Colonel Middleton, and the constant gap between his interpretation of events and the reader’s. And certain scenes in other novels, which are potentially melodramatic are sufficiently controlled never to descend into sensationalism—Janet’s dangerous progress through the burnt out appartment building in Moth and Rust, for instance, or the night-time skating party in Diana Tempest, with its skilful exploitation of oppositions of dark and light, fire and ice, crowd and solitariness, love and death.
Mary Cholmondeley is not without a certain interest for those concerned with women’s studies, even though she was not directly involved in any of the feminist issues of her day. (The nearest she gets is in a lightweight and somewhat ambivalent skit, “Votes for Men”, in which women are running the country and men, not content with their traditional domestic and decorative roles, are agitating for the franchise.) Basically, of course, Mary Cholmondeley is fairly traditional in her ideas; her unmarried heroines live under the protection of a relation’s roof, however uncongenial the situation there may be—even Hester, an established writer with respectable alternatives open to her, choses to join the Gresleys. Annette, the heroine of her last novel, nearly comes to grief when she rebels against the stuffy village existence of her three aunts; later she comes to believe she did wrong in refusing to stay and help the one aunt she really liked, and, when she dies, returns voluntarily to take her place in the household.
But although Mary Cholmondeley does appear to uphold the stock Nineteenth Century view that a role of selfless service is proper for a woman— and a man—and morally ennobling, she is brutally aware of the practical consequences of such a view. Few of her heroines are as lucky as Diana Tempest, living in an equal and satisfying relationship with a much loved grandmother; at the best they are trapped by their dependent position in an endless round of trivial conversation and meaningless pastimes, like Ruth in Sir Charles Danvers, constantly called upon for admiration and advice during her aunt’s interminable covering of a screen with tasteless fragments from old Christmas cards; at the worst, they endure the ruthless exploitation of the selfless by the selfish shown in Prisoners.
Socially dependent her heroines may be, but they are physically strong and independently minded. In none of her novels does Mary Cholmondeley favour the child bride, the ‘wee wifie’ with her father-husband so dear to Victorian ideals of sweetly dependent womanhood. Indeed, in A Devotee she shows the unhappiness of a man actually married to such a woman, and this scant regard for the myth may help explain why it was her least successful novel and virtually ignored by the reviewers. The one apparent exception, the frail, helpless little “Geoffrey’s wife” in the short story of that name, gets very thoroughly trampled to death on her honeymoon, and the pathos of the telling does not fully conceal a certain satisfaction with this outcome. The story contains other highly suggestive elements that today tempt analysis: after agonising efforts to carry his wife on his back through a crowd, to save her getting crushed, Geoffrey discovers he has actually ‘rescued’ a raddled prostitute—a surprise substitution illuminated by the now generally accepted connection between the two sides of the Victorian good woman/whore dichotomy; all Geoffrey is left with is one little glove—a memento which on one level underlines the totality of his loss, but on another echoes the way that women were reduced and mutilated by the role of helpless innocent.
Many of the points Mary Cholmondeley makes about sexual mores were virtually obligatory for a liberal minded writer—mutual attraction and respect are essential between husband and wife, and a purely mercenary marriage is just a socially acceptable form of prostitution. She shows too that there are worse crimes than loss of chastity—the girl who makes a false step in the short story “The Pitfall” is less blameworthy than the respectable woman who stands by and lets it happen; the real crime of Hugh Scarlett is not his adultery with Lady Newhaven but the lie he tells Rachel, whom he really loves, and her initial failure in love and charitableness when he does bring himself to acknowledge the truth is equally wrong; conversely, Annette’s near fall may make her socially suspect, but this is more than cancelled out in moral terms by her selfknowledge and unswerving truthfulness. Although such points have been made many times before, Mary Cholmondeley does make them well and forcefully, and one can argue that they have still not entirely lost their relevance.
Two of the novels merit somewhat more detailed attention here than they have so far received—Diana Tempest, Mary Cholmondeley’s third, and to many of her reviewers, her best work, and Notwithstanding, her last novel.
John Tempest, a hero born on the same day as his author and even owning her pet dogs, seems to bear out the modern perception that women writers compensate for the limitations of their own lives by putting something of themselves into their male protagonists. John’s fight back to health after each attempt on his life, his emotional and intellectual isolation, his ugliness, his uncompromising ideals and strong ambitions, may well tell us something about Mary Cholmondeley’s personal battles. Certainly, although he is a man with what were the appropriately male ambitions of a great landowner and future politician, he is closer to her than the heroine, Diana Tempest, in whose grace, beauty and confident health we perhaps glimpse the sort of woman she would have liked to be.
Diana Tempest has been actively encouraged “to think and act for herself” as a direct result of the unhappiness brought upon her mother by a too sheltered upbringing. At first she resists her growing love for John because of her awareness of the “great demands of marriage—of the absolute sacrifice of individual existence which it involves”. The sheer physical intrusiveness of marriage is presented graphically through another character, Madeleine, pestered even in her private retreat by a devoted but little loved husband, and forced to endure his enthusiastic rummaging through the drawers of her dressing table. Our lack of sympathy for Madeleine, a religious prig who has married for money and position, does not rob the scene of its point. (These episodes, plus a story called The Goldfish, about a girl whose own ambitions as a painter are starved because she is forced to help her husband finish his own inferior canvasses, may tell us why Mary Cholmondeley herself refused at least one attractive offer of marriage.) Throughout the novel we are given a strong sense of the personal equality between the hero and heroine. When they are first introduced “their eyes met on the exact level of equal height, and the steady, keen glance that passed between was like the meeting of two formidable powers”; their situations are in many ways parallel—both have lost their mother at birth, both have inadequate fathers, whose moral standards they reject, and both are threatened by death, John literally, from hired assassins, and Diana metaphorically. Finally, it is Diana who proposes to John, and when they marry not only will she keep her surname, but she will be giving John the right to his, renounced when he discovered his illegitimacy. Their equality is stressed again in the concluding scene of the novel in which “they wept and clung together like two children”.
In her last novel Mary Cholmondeley makes her strongest statement against the Victorian division of women into angels and whores. Annette has knowingly compromised herself, even if admittedly while in a reckless and suicidal mood, and retains her technical virginity only because the man she goes off with has a stroke on their first night. Annette is honest with herself about this episode, both with herself and with Roger, whom she now loves—”it’s the same as if I had. I meant to.” Roger has to learn to understand and accept the real Annette, to replace his idealised picture of Annette picking flowers and singing in the choir— an image in which “her mind, her character, her individuality had no place”—with that of a suffering, passionate and once desperate woman. Moreover, we are given a compassionate glimpse of what might so easily have been Annette’s fate through that of Mary Deane, the neglected mistress of her former companion. We do not meet Mary directly but through a detailed description of her house, left as she had abandoned it after her child’s death and seen through Annette’s eyes; this enables us to be given a sympathetic and understanding portrait without offending against good taste by bringing a fallen woman into the foreground.
Mary Cholmondeley is not a great novelist, indeed few of her contemporaries claimed she was more than a good one. But setting aside questions of social relevance or undeservedly forgotten literary merits, she is still eminently readable. Anyone who enjoys a novel of manners will find her books well worth rescuing from the junkshops, where they still turn up as reminders of her popularity with an earlier generation of readers. As Edith Lyttelton put it, at the end of her original review of Diana Tempest: “…after all I am only apologising for not ranking Miss Cholmondeley with Thackeray and Tolstoi and George Eliot.”