Reviewed by Harriet
This delightful novel is part of the latest batch of the British Library Women Writers series. I’ve reviewed a few of these on here, most recently the brilliant Which Way by Theodora Benson [here].
Published in 1915, Sally on the Rocks is in many ways a product of its time, but its heroine seemed to me extraordinarily modern. For thirty-one year old Sally Lunton has had quite a rackety life. She’s been living in Paris since she was eighteen, though her aspirations to become a great artist have resulted only in her being able to make a living of sorts doing illustrations. Now, following the outbreak of war, ‘things were looking grim and grey, and the shadow of the gaunt wolf lay on the threshold. The Paris she had known was dead, and with it her prospects of making a living’. It’s at this exact moment that she receives a letter from Miss Maggie Hopkins, a resident of the village of Little Crampton, where Sally grew up. Miss Maggie is a terrifying character: she devotes her life to finding out about her neighbours and spreading malicious gossip. Nobody is safe in Little Crampton, as Miss Maggie’s stern morality always prevents her from keeping her knowledge to herself: ‘No matter how small the skeleton she pounced upon, the lady could make its bones rattle so loudly that you would be deafened yourself’. She’s writing to Sally now because she has a plan. In the village lives a Mr Bingley. He’s a bank manager and a batchelor. His domineering mother has recently died, so Mr Bingley is in need of a wife. Of course there’s already a candidate – Mrs Dalton, an attractive young widow with a young daughter. Although Miss Maggie doesn’t spell it out in the letter, it’s clear that she hopes Sally will return and give Mr Bingley another option to choose from. Her main reason seems to be sheer mischief making – as she says, ‘We want somebody to liven things up dreadfully’. So, after much heart-searching, Sally returns to Little Crampton and moves in with her erstwhile guardian, Reverend Adam Lovelady.
Sally is clear-eyed about her reasons for returning to the village. She needs to marry a man with enough money to keep her comfortably, and Mr Bingley’s fifteen hundred a year will do nicely. She meets him soon enough and is not impressed:
His appearance held no thrills, unless, as far as Sally was concerned, a thrill of aversion. He was plump and thick, and his legs were very short. He had a fat, pasty face, shrewd little eyes, a blunt nose, and a tiny, rather pursed up mouth. He would have been growing bald if his hair had not been so grown and brushed as to cover the denuded spots.
Sally can’t help shuddering at the prospect of marrying such a man, but she tells herself firmly that she has no choice: ‘One can put up with any decent-living man, as long as there’s money’. So she puts on her most winning smile, encourages him to talk about himself, and Mr Bingley is immediately attracted. And now follows an entertainingly triangular situation in which he is unable to decide between Mrs Dalton, who seems in many ways ideal – not only is she reputed to have a little money of her own, but she’s mature, gentle and maternal – and the lively, pretty Sally, who knows how to wind him round her little finger. You might expect the two women to be deadly rivals, but on the contrary, they make friends and agree to let the best woman win. Sally is determined to make this boring, unattractive man propose to her, and there’s a hilarious scene where she suggests an evening stroll and pretends to have got them completely lost, hoping that the combination of the summer moonlight and Bingley’s fear of the consequences of spending a night out in the countryside will precipitate an offer of marriage. Bingley is in turmoil: ‘Had he compromised Miss Lunton? Had she not rather compromised him? Must he marry her either for his reputation or hers? What a problem to be faced with!’
But despite her determination to pursue marriage and security, Sally is distracted by two unexpected occurrences. One is the reappearance of her old lover from Paris days, with whom she once spent a blissful holiday in Italy, masquerading as a married couple. Amazingly, the poverty-stricken Jimmy Randall has been transformed by a surprise legacy, and has moved into a grand house in the village with his new wife. Their conversation is awkward and revealing: it’s clear that though he had happily enjoyed their illicit affair, he now considers her to be ‘beyond the pale’ as a marriageable woman. Her response is telling:
‘You are to be permitted to forget, but never I. Yet you have paid no price. Your wife forgave you and married you just the same, as women, wise and foolish, do the world over. You look at the matter one way and I the other – the man’s and the woman’s way. You ran no real risk of losing your wife by confessing. I lose everything in this world; some may think in the next. No, such things are not on the same footing, after all’.
Sally’s other distraction comes in the form of a soldier, Robert Kantyre, who is convalescing from his war wounds by working on a nearby farm. She’s determined not to let the fact that he’s attractive and likeable lead her away from her goal. Both these encounters will have a bearing on the eventual outcome of her plans, as will the astute and vindictive actions of Miss Maggie.
Sally on the Rocks is a wonderful combination of humour and seriousness. Sally seems in many ways to be a woman born before her time: her easy-going continental morality is in sharp contrast with what was expected of young women at the time, and she’s only too aware of it. She’s also crucially conscious that she has no viable options. It’s impossible not to wish her well in whatever direction her life takes. What that will be you will have to read the book to find out.
Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books
Winifred Boggs, Sally on the Rocks (British Library, 2021). 978-0712353045, 276pp., paperback original.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)