Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley 

Set in the Victorian age, Red Pottage is a novel of women’s lives and thoughts and strivings in a time period when women were not thought to have those. It is the story of two friends Hester and Rachel, who’ve known each other since childhood and glimpsed a compatible soul in the other. They are both smart and moral and modern in that they want their lives to have meaning. They communicate with each other and a few good, like-minded friends. They have to endure the stupidity and shallowness of others, some of which are their own family members.

Rachel is a wealthy heiress who falls in love with the weak-willed Hugh Scarlett after he has broken off an affair with Lady Newhaven (which he does not originally realize has been discovered by her husband). Hester, a novelist, lives with her brother, the pompous vicar of the fictional village of Warpington. The book caused a scandal when it was first published due to its themes of adultery, the emancipation of women and its satire of the clergy.

“I will break it off,” says Hugh Scarlett to himself. “Thank Heaven, not a soul has ever guessed it.”

He thinks of the day he first met her, when he looked upon her as merely a pretty woman. He recalls their other days together, and the gradual building up between them of a fairy palace. He added a stone here, she a stone there — until suddenly it became a prison. Had he been tempter, or tempted? He cannot say. He wants only to be out of it. His infatuation has run its course. His judgment has been whirled — he tells himself it had been whirled, but had it really only been tweaked? — from its center. It performed its giddy orbit, and now the check-string has brought it back to the point from whence it had set out — namely, that she is merely a pretty woman.

Yet nothing in life is simple. Lord Newhaven suspects — or more than suspects: for he introduces the modern equivalent of the duel! And Hugh has had a vision of hope for the future, in a sympathetic soul — in the eyes of Rachel West.

I became completely engrossed in these characters and the moral quagmire of their time. Talk about a cross-section of society, we have the very wealthy and shallow, the very wealthy and titled, the rather poor and ordinary, the rather poor but exceptional, the finest kind of moral beacon in the guise of a bishop, and the very worst of a sniveling, narrow-mindedness in a clergyman. In truth, Cholmondeley makes it clear that where you are born or what profession you choose is not what determines your value in the least.

“All the same, a man with one eye can see that women with money, or anything that makes them independent of us, don’t flatter us by their alacrity to marry us. They will make fools of themselves for love—none greater—and they will marry for love. But their different attitude towards us, their natural lords and masters, directly we are no longer necessary to them as stepping-stones to a home and a recognized position, revolts me. If you had taken my advice at the start, you would have made up to one among the mob of women who are dependent on marriage for their very existence. If a man goes into that herd he will not be refused. And if he is it does not matter. It is the blessed custom of piling everything on to the eldest son, and leaving the women of the family almost penniless, which provides half of us with wives without any trouble to ourselves. Whatever we are, they have got to take us. The average dancing young woman living in luxury in her father’s house is between the devil and the deep sea. We are frequently the devil; but it is not surprising that she can’t face the alternative—a poverty to which she was not brought up, and in which she has seen her old spinster aunts. But I suppose in your case you really want the money?”

I felt the punishment did not fit the crime in the case of Hugh Scarlet. He is guilty of cuckolding a gentleman and, in the days when a duel was a matter of honor, he is called to a duel of a kind, but in my view much worse. In a book that is replete with the need for redemption, he desperately tries to find his so that he can measure up to Rachel West, the woman he comes to love. What I found especially moving is that Rachel, while a very decent person, is not a paragon of virtue herself, as she judges men too harshly based on one past experience.

The time is certainly becoming short,” said Lord Newhaven. “He is right in saying there is only a week left. If it were not for the scandal for the boys, and if I thought he would really hold to the compact, I would meet him, but he won’t. He flinched when he drew lots. He won’t. He has courage enough to stand up in front of me for two minutes, and take his chance, but not to blow his own brains out. No. And if he knew what is in store for him if he does not, he would not have courage to face that either. Nor should I if I were in his shoes, poor devil. The first six foot of earth would be good enough for me.

In fact there are a few characters who cannot be loved, they are just too horrid, but the three main characters are unerringly human and I felt greatly for each of them. Cholmondeley addresses many important themes in this work, not the least of them being the position of unmarried women in society and the struggle for independence they are forced to constantly battle. I felt her writing was reminiscent of George Eliot…and I do not compare anyone to George Eliot lightly.

Hugh had made the discovery that love was a much overrated passion. He had always supposed so; but when he tired of Lady Newhaven he was sure of it. His experience was, after all, only the same as that which many men acquire by marriage, and hold unshaken through long and useful lives. But Hugh had not been able to keep the treasures of this early experience. It had been rendered worthless, perhaps rather contemptible by a later one—that of falling in love with Rachel, and the astonishing discovery that he was in love for the first time. He had sold his birthright for a mess of red pottage, as surely as any man or woman who marries for money or liking. He had not believed in his birthright, and holding it to be worthless, had given it to the first person who had offered him anything in exchange.

I was bowled over by the brilliance of the author’s ironic wit. I laughed out loud in many places. But I was disappointed by the last third of the book, which lapses into melodrama. If the author had maintained her ironic distance to the end, the book would have been a masterpiece. Having set up the bizarre duel, she could have done better things with it. She also allowed her dislike of a certain type of clergyman to run away with her, hammering away at that theme longer than was necessary.

Those are just my impressions on a first reading. The book merits another reading.

About the author

Mary Cholmondeley began writing with serious intent in her teens. She wrote in her journal in 1877, “What a pleasure and interest it would be to me in life to write books. I must strike out a line of some kind, and if I do not marry (for at best that is hardly likely, as I possess neither beauty nor charms) I should want some definite occupation, besides the home duties.” She placed initially some stories in The Graphic and elsewhere. Her first novel was The Danvers Jewels (1887), a detective story that won a small following. It appeared in the Temple Bar magazine published by Richard Bentley, after fellow novelist Rhoda Broughton had introduced her to George Bentley. It was followed by Sir Charles Danvers (1889), Diana Tempest (1893) and A Devotee (1897). Bentley paid £40 for The Danvers Jewels and £50 for Sir Charles Danvers, both in two volumes, but increased an offer of £250 for the three-volume Diana Tempest to £400, the first of her books to appear under her name.

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