Reviewed by Harriet
Born in 1872, Flora Macdonald Mayor was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman and classics professor. Perhaps surprisingly, given her background, she became an actress, but abandoned the profession, possibly because she became engaged. She was planning to travel to India to join her fiancé when he died of typhoid. She never married. I first encountered her writing ten years ago, and wrote a very enthusiastic review on my blog of her 1924 novel The Rector’s Daughter [here]. I went on to read The Squire’s Daughter, which I don’t seem to have reviewed, and her first, The Third Miss Symonds (1913) [here]. But all this went on in 2011, and when I’d read these three I assumed that was it, as Mayor’s output was notoriously small. However I’ve since learned that she also wrote some short stories, so it was very pleasing to discover that Mike Walmer had unearthed and reprinted Miss Browne’s Friend. This little gem first appeared as a serial in the Free Church Suffrage Times between June 1914 and March 1915.
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. We all know them, spinsters from thirty onwards, who are cheerfully devoting their lives to be of use and comfort to their families, their friends, their village, their town, and their country. Sometimes these objects of their goodness patronize them, sometimes they laugh at them, and sometimes they writhe a little under the benefits they are receiving; but they could not possibly get on without their Miss Brownes.
Our Miss Browne is one of those who are patronized – she’s at the beck and call of her family, who clearly don’t appreciate her. So when she sees an article asking people to befriend girls who are in a Rescue Home – ‘they are so solitary, poor lasses, not a soul to care for them. Who will take them by the hand?’ – she leaps at the chance to do some good. Soon she acquires an appointed ‘friend’, one Mabel Roberts. On her visit to the home, she is surprised to see how unattractive most of the girls are – though it’s never spelled out, they have presumably been rescued from prostitution. But then she spots Mabel, whose ‘small, lithe figue, drooping neck, and eyes of a piercing blue might have belonged to the poetic daughter of an earl’. She’s delighted to find that Mabel seems sweet-natured and talkative, and before they part she has assured Miss Browne that now she has a friend to care for her, ‘I mean to do my very best’.
It’s very clear to the reader that Mabel is not all she pretends to be. But Miss Browne is very optimistic that she will do well once she’s placed as a domestic, and at first all seems fine – she sends happy, grateful letters to Miss Browne, who feels for the first time that she’s not just being taken for granted. But sadly things don’t go well, and soon Mabel is looking for another place. Eighteen months later she is sacked from her seventh household. The pattern is always the same: the family is pleased with her at first, and Mabel writes charming letters to Miss Browne, always assuring her how hard she’s going to try ‘so that you can be proud of me’. But it never lasts. Things go from bad to worse. Mabel tries waitressing, then sewing, and seems to be living far too rackety a life. Miss Browne’s final attempt to place her in a suitable environment fails, and sadly things do not end well for her.
In my review of The Rector’s Daughter I described it as ‘a novel about how hard it is to understand other people, and how many misunderstandings and even tragedies arise from it’. The same could be said about Miss Browne’s Friend. Poor, well-meaning Miss Browne tries so hard, but clearly cannot imagine what it’s like to be a pretty, lively young woman who wants to enjoy her life but has so few options open to her. She swings between optimism and disappointment, wanting desperately to believe Mabel’s loving, grateful letters but all too often upset by hearing what Mabel has been saying and doing behind her back. So this could be a very sad novel, but there’s a twist at the end which lifts Miss Browne’s mood and should lift the reader’s too.
All in all, in just thirty pages, Mayor manages to convey, with tenderness and humour, the unsatisfactoriness of women’s lives at the era, whatever social class they belonged to. Hooray for Mike Walmer for finding this and producing such a delightful little book.
Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books. A version of this review first appeared on her blog.
F.M. Mayor, Miss Browne’d Friend (Micheal Walmer, 2021). 978-0648920458, 40pp., hardback.
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