Reviewed by Harriet
These girls, buffeting with the world as they did war-work, or any work that would support them, were apt to have moments when independence seemed the most forlorn ambition on earth. A prolonged struggle for a tram or bus in sleety wind after a long day in an office induced a state of gloomy self-questioning…
Marjorie Grant, the author of this latest discovery from Handheld Press, wrote just seven novels: two under her own name, and six as Caroline Seaford. She also wrote more than 1200 anonymous reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. Born in Canada in 1882, she moved to Europe at the beginning of WW1 and spent part of the war years working in a charitable canteen in Paris; her first novel. Verdun Days in Paris (1918) was based on her experiences there. Latchkey Ladies was published in 1921, but set in 1917-18 – the war is over by the end of the novel. Out of print for a hundred years, the novel came to the attention of Kate Macdonald, founder of Handheld Press, through her reading of Sarah Le Fanu’s Dreaming of Rose (reviewed here), which describes Rose Macaulay’s friendship with Grant and its connection with the novel. It proved to be a book of remarkable interest, and one that Macdonald knew she had to publish.
The latchkey ladies of the title are young women in their early twenties, working in London and living alone. As twenty-five-year-old Anne Carey, the main protagonist of the novel, puts it, their lives often seem to consist of ‘letting themselves in and out of dismal rooms, being independent and hating it’. But it’s not all hard work, though that can be pretty gruelling. The novel opens in the Mimosa Club, which offers lodgings to single women but also provides meals for those who live in separate accommodation, as Anne and her friend Maquita do. There’s a good sense of camaraderie at the club, though the two rather upmarket elderly residents disapprove of the younger women’s giggles and banter. There are also parties to go to, and though many men are away fighting the war, there are still enough of them around to make for some fun for anyone who’s inclined. Maquita certainly is – temperamentally she’s very different from the quiet, retiring Anne. She’s optimistic, fond of change (of men as well as lodgings and jobs), and takes life as it comes.
It’s Maquita who takes the somewhat unwilling Anne to a party at the Mayfair house of her friend Simon Meebes, a rich and extremely dubious individual who likes to surround himself with pretty young women. It’s here that Simon introduces them to Petunia Garry while ‘looking at her with the greedy eye of a collector who has found a new specimen’. Petunia is a stunningly lovely ex-chorus girl whose background is mysterious: she undoubtedly lies about it and is suspected of being Anglo-Indian. She later appals the conventional old ladies at the Mimosa by bringing an ex (or maybe not ex) prostitute to one of their dinners. Anne finds the atmosphere of Simon’s party distressing and exhausting – ‘the lights, the chatter, the high voices of the girls, the braying gramophone accompanying the piano seemed to have been beating on her nerves for hours and hours’ – and is on the verge of fainting when she is rescued by a kind man who takes her home in a taxi. This is Philip Dampier, who Anne is overwhelmed to discover is a famous poet and playwright whose work she has always admired.
Dampier invites Anne to his home to meet his wife and children, and for a while this becomes a welcome refuge for her. But one night, during an air raid, the two find themselves kissing while the searchlights are ‘crossing swords’, and before long they are on an idyllic holiday on Exmoor while his wife is away. Anne is genuinely happy for perhaps the first time in her life, and the affair continues for many months. Finally (and I was quite surprised it took so long) Anne finds she is pregnant. But by this time Dampier has succumbed to pneumonia and is eventually whisked off to California without ever discovering he was to be a father. Anne courageously decides to go through with the pregnancy, though she has to conceal it from her friends and social circle. A tragedy soon after the birth leaves her alone again, but she’s gained some inner strength and determination from her experience, keeping busy and feeling grateful that she, unlike many people of her acquaintance, will not have ‘lived and died in a kind of greyness’.
There’s so much to admire in this captivating novel. Every character seems extraordinarily vital and alive. There are the girls, of course, several of whom find suitable and sometimes wealthy husbands, including Petunia, who ends up being absorbed into the upper middle class. But then there are Anne’s twin maiden aunts: Maxima, who runs a school with her ‘affinity’ Miss Molland – their names for each other are Paul and Veritas – and Minima, whose life has been spent studying various esoteric and abstruse languages and cultures. It is Minima who, after her initial shock at discovering Anne’s condition, takes her in, telling herself that ‘of course some women … regard men only in one way, as the fathers of their children. Eugenically, that is sound, I think’. The men are less impressive: Thomas, Anne’s dull fiancé, is rather fortunately killed in the war, saving her from a marriage she was entering out of desperation, and Dampier is kind and gentle but perhaps a little weak. It’s hard to imagine how he would have reacted if he’d ever learned Anne’s story. But Grant chooses to end the novel on a note of hope. Read this for a fascinating glimpse of young women’s lives at a period when they had a degree of independence but still didn’t have the vote, for a brave and un-judgemental depiction of an extra-marital affair, and for a story of a rather lost and sad young woman who finds that a purpose in life can emerge from adversity.
Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books
Marjorie Grant, Latchkey Ladies (Handheld Press, 2022). 978-1912766628, 302pp., paperback original.
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