As a reader who likes to pick up books that barely anyone seems to be reading, I am so grateful to publishers like Michael Walmer, who make it their mission to sift through a great deal of forgotten literature, and reprint the real gems for a modern audience. The gorgeously designed hardback edition of F.M. Mayor’s Miss Browne’s Friend is the newest addition to my collection, and is part of the Zephyr Books list.
I have read, and very much enjoyed, two of Virago author F.M. Mayor’s novels in the past – The Rector’s Daughter and The Third Miss Symons – and was overjoyed when I was offered a review copy of her little known serialised short story, Miss Browne’s Friend. It first appeared in four parts in the Free Church Suffrage Times, between June 1914 and March 1915, and was published just a year after her first novel, The Third Miss Symons. In this printed format, it fills just 32 pages, and can easily be read in a single sitting.
The protagonist of the piece is Miss Ethel Browne, ‘a typical adornment of her era’. In the years before World War One, Miss Browne is a single woman of a ‘certain age’, seen as a spinster by all around her. After reading an advertisement printed by the Rescue Home, Miss Browne is paired with a young woman named Mabel Roberts, who has ‘fallen into dubious ways’. The aim of this programme is to aid fallen women, and to make them more respectable. The book’s blurb writes of the way in which ‘Miss Browne is somewhat dazzled by Mabel’s beauty, and charmed by her simple transparency and determination to be good.’
I love the way in which the story begins. Mayor writes: ‘In almost every village in England a Miss Browne is to be found; in every town several Miss Brownes; in London they must be almost too many to count.’ These ‘Miss Brownes’ are described as ‘spinsters from thirty onwards’, who are using their lives to help others – ‘their families, their friends, their village, their town, and their country.’ Our particular Miss Browne hails from Croydon, where she largely ‘waited on a mother who did not want waiting on.’
After their initial meeting, Miss Browne has a real fondness for her charge. Mayor writes: ‘even in this little half-hour they had come close to intimacy’, and explains that afterwards, Miss Browne almost forgot to get out at her proper turning, she was so busy with benevolent schemes for Mabel’s future.’ It becomes, in a way, Miss Browne’s responsibility to help Mabel into work, and she finds several positions for her. This has a great effect on Miss Browne, too. When she learns of the mistakes which Mabel has made in her first posting, in which she is supposed to be helping two elderly ladies, ‘the whole taste’ goes out of her tea, ‘and she almost forgot to answer her mother cheerfully.’ One after another, these positions fall through, as employers tire of Mabel’s ways, and of her attitude. In a later posting, in which Mabel becomes a waitress in a London restaurant, Mayor wryly comments: ‘Everything went beautifully – until the usual earthquake.’
Mayor has a real knack for setting scenes deftly, with just a few details. She does the same with her characters; Miss Browne, for instance, possessed ‘a face which no one (herself included) could ever remember much about, [and so] she had a peculiar tenderness for beauty.’ Despite the shortness of the piece, Mayor manages to cover a great deal of ground here. Miss Browne’s Friend feels as expansive as a novel, in many ways, and its plot is whole, and well shaped. The balance between seriousness and humour has been expertly handled here, too.
The blurb of Miss Browne’s Friend hails F.M. Mayor as ‘one of the most sensitive exponents of the challenges and uncertainties of single women’s lives in her times’. I have to agree; despite the brevity of this story, it is tremendously useful from an historical perspective. Mayor wrote largely about women’s lives, and always takes into account differences between the classes, and the way in which individuals can often be so naive about the lives and situations of others.
Miss Browne’s Friend is immediately absorbing, and provides a lot of intrigue. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the social aspect of the period immediately preceding the First World War, and to any fans of Virago and Persephone books. This is a story which is sure to delight. I thoroughly hope that a great deal of readers go on to pick it up, and that they enjoy it just as much as I did.