Nature vs. nurture was my first thought on finishing F.M. Mayor's The Third Miss Symons, which was first published in 1913 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1980. Is Henrietta Symons, third daughter and fifth child of a proper Victorian family the way she is because of the oppressive environment in which she was raised or it is simply the nature of her personality and indeed she is as curmudgeonly and taciturn as she appears and therefore unlovable. While reading I was by turns sympathetic towards her plight and wanting to give her a good shake and tell her: 'please, for your own sake . . . snap out of it!'.
It is comforting to know I am not alone in my response as I read Susan Hill's introduction, as she feels much the same (though she notes it is hard to be sympathetic towards her at all). "The fault lies in Henrietta's personality as much as in her circumstances. She knows it, at least in her heart of hearts, and loathes herself, and can do nothing to escape from the prison of herself," Hill writes. Isn't that the worst--seeing those faults in yourself yet not having the desire or compunction to try and make a change.
So, it is both nature and nurture. Her poor upbringing which does nothing to instill a sense of self-worth sets her up for an unhappy, unadventurous adulthood almost entirely devoid of meaningful interactions with others and no ability to simply either be content with her situation or find the skills in order to make it more fulfilling. In a way this feels a little like a cautionary tale, though mostly it is a look at the circumstances some women found themselves in in that period just before WWI--just at the end of the Victorian era where women either married and took care of husbands and children or were maiden aunts, 'extras' who might be useful to elderly parents or siblings. At least by the post-WWI modern era women finally began making strides and finding new roles as independent women--thank goodness!
Poor Henrietta was stuck somewhere in the middle of the family lineup. Neither the eldest nor the youngest--each having some special role--happy novelties to be a first or last, and not a boy. Not particularly pretty, though she does have her short moment. She is more or less neglected and compared to her siblings not really all that useful to her parents. Rather than finding her own happy place in the world she simply turns bitter and remains that way.
Henrietta's eldest sister sabotages her one chance at marital happiness (whether it would have been a happy marriage is open to argument, but she would at least have filled a certain accepted role). What is sad is that none of the daughters end up especially happy or successful all things considered. But by then Henrietta's personality has been formed and is rigid and unwavering. She becomes the sort of cranky, cantankerous old woman who would likely yell out her window--'hey you naughty kids get off my lawn' . . . grouch . . . grouch . . . grouch.
One woman's life summed up in a mere 144 pages. It is not a very happy life or a useful life. In the original preface to the book, it's remarked that this is a woman whose life is not wasted, simply it is not used. And there is something heartbreaking about that. All through the story she wonders why she is here if she is not loved. Over and over again she thinks that her only desire has been to love something and for something/somebody to love her. And isn't that ultimately what we all want? So I guess in the end this is a character study and a comment on the human condition. Maybe it I shouldn't be sad that it takes only 144 pages to sum up one woman's life as to admire F.M. Mayor's ability lay bare Henrietta's shortcomings and situation so very precisely in so compact a manner. And to appreciate that this utter boredom of Henrietta's, this lack of any useful application of time and skills to contribute something meaningful to one's life and to Society is a choice these days rather than impossible situation.
And just so you don't think Henrietta never found any happiness and fulfillment:
"On the whole during those latter years she improved, and in the general reformation of her character she raised the standard of her reading. She confined herself in the mornings and afternoon to mildly scandalous memoirs of Frenchwomen and biographies of Church dignitaries, keeping her costume novels for the evening."
She had never been a very good reader, or learner in general (or traveler or helper . . .), but I had a good chuckle on the books that helped her find some useful distractions! A somewhat maddening story (or a maddening woman), but in the end, as per Viragos in general, this is a story with more to it than meets the eye. As for a companion read Persephone book #65 Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson offers another view on the spinster or superfluous woman.
I've not yet started reading, but I think my next Virago will be A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns.