Reviewed by Julie Barham
This book by the seemingly prolific writer, Silberrad, is an excellent read not only for its time, 1908, but a relevant read for today. Seen as a ‘New Woman’ novel for its depiction of Desire, the female protagonist, as a strong, independently minded woman who rises above her varying situations, it is notable also for its resilient, silent male lead, Peter. He is unusual as a man who seems able to accept the lead of those around him, until and unless he is pushed beyond his own level of endurance. Desire’s own indifference to her circumstances until she is forced to react and make her own decisions shows that her strength of mind will only be activated by injustice or concern for others, when she is able to see the positive side. This is a positive novel, not without trial and some tragedy, but the depiction of the survival of the human spirit is admirable, and the consistency of its two central characters is memorable for all the right reasons.
Desire is a young woman whose birth out of legal wedlock does not hamper her becoming the darling of wealthy society, established as she is in her rich father’s household. Her stepmother despises her until she is presented with the opportunity to arrange a marriage to a successful lawyer, Gore. Desire is the sort of woman whose independence of thought, habit and behaviour combined with intelligence and beauty make men desire her, women jealously want to be her, and everyone admire her. She does not and will not conform to the petty rules, but is not hurtful, and her temporary passions are attractive. She is taken with Peter Grimstone, whose lack of innocence is oddly charming to her, as is his novel, The Dreamer, who she gladly discovers and promotes. When Desire discovers that her fiancé has let down another woman, she decides that he must marry the abandoned lady, and that Peter must be the excuse. He then discovers that his family need his presence to support the business, so he returns to his Midlands origins. Meanwhile Desire’s father dies, leaving no financial provision for her, and she decides to seek her fortune rather than depend on her vindictive step mother.
The second part of the novel begins as Peter seeks Desire out, and instead of offering her all the material things she has tired of, he offers her a job with his family firm where she can use both her natural ability and her newly acquired office skills. Here she blossoms; instead of the indolent society lady, she becomes a businesswoman and investor. Moreover, she discovers a real love of those she is with, and excitement in the simple things she had never formerly encountered. There is evil to confront, solid determination and difficulty, but Desire’s strength continues.
Early critics of this novel saw the division of this novel almost as in two parts, debating which was the most satisfactory. However, I thought that it formed a strong whole, with a consistent character whose genuine concern for others while refusing to compromise her own personality shines through. It is more than a romance, more than a coming of age book; it is a strong narrative of a woman and man whose strength of purpose rises above the normal, who therefore threaten the status quo in an ultimately positive way. It is a worthy addition to the Handheld Press’ list, and one I greatly enjoyed. It sums up a reason for literature, for reading, so well describing those who read and certain novels in the sentence ‘…chiefly among those who do not talk much about what they read, especially when they feel it as the grip of a friend’s hand in a dark place’. I am grateful to have received a review copy of this novel, and hope that many more will find it to admire Desire.
Julie blogs at Northern Reader
Una Silberrad, Desire (Handheld Press, 2018). 978-1999828028, 388pp., paperback original.
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