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The Career of Katherine Bush

July 13, 2011

As if I needed another reason to think Elinor Glyn was awesome.

As usual, Glyn writes about the moneyed British upper class. Less usually, her heroine is a stranger to it. Katherine Bush is one of six children in a middle class family. Her father was an auctioneer, her mother’s father was a butcher, and her siblings are kind of embarrassingly unrefined, but Katherine is smart and driven, and she’s determined to raise herself to a better position.

We know she’s going to manage it, because Elinor Glyn wouldn’t have written the kind of book where she doesn’t, and it’s not like this is a totally unfamiliar plot, but The Career of Katherine Bush manages to be pretty exciting. It’s got that trademark Glyn combination: the gooiest possible romance mixed with total ruthlessness. And a bit more politics than you wanted.

Sure, Katherine starts out as a typist for a moneylender, and then applies for a job as social secretary to Lady Garribardine — one of those imperious, clever, humorous elderly ladies you find in so many novels — where she starts mixing with wealthy aristocrats. That’s all routine. But she’s switched jobs to avoid Lord Algy, the young man with whom she’s just spent an illicit weekend in Paris. Yes, she’s a little bit in love with him, but she only slept with him in order to acquire experience, and she has to switch jobs so he can’t track her down. And yes, her new employer’s nephew falls in love with her, but that’s because she deliberately sets out to attract him so that she can make him teach her about art and literature.

The plot isn’t terribly exciting, beyond the general niceness of a character successfully moving up in class; it’s Katherine herself that makes it all so good. She’s incredibly ambitious, but also level-headed and sensible, and while she’s logical and analytical, she’s not cold. She does, of course, get a bit less interesting during the romantic bits at the end — she starts being noble and self-denying, which for me is always equal parts delightful and infuriating — but she’s still smart and sensible, and nothing she does seems inconsistent with her character.

There’s also Elinor Glyn’s incredibly sharp sense of class distinctions, and the political views for which her characters become mouthpieces. I don’t actually agree with Glyn most of the time, but I never doubt her smarts, and no author has ever convinced me that they’re familiar with the upper class the way Glyn does every time. Things that I know about but never really feel like I get suddenly make sense here — the London Season, strata within the upper classes, the social position of a secretary. I even found myself thinking about the “servant problem” when I read about friction between Katherine and her family.

The interactions between Katherine and her family were actually the most interesting part of the book. It’s so clear that she’s above them in terms of education and manners, and once Lady Garribardine finds out how helpful she is, she probably makes more money than any of her siblings, but because she’s theoretically a servant and because she’s “living in” at the home of her employer, they look down on her.  Her oldest brother’s fiancee, Mabel Cawber, is stuck-up about being a solicitor’s daughter, and does everything with the greatest possible amount of ostentation and bad taste, but the rest of the Bush family thinks she’s the coolest person they know. And if Katherine points out the differences between their class and the class she works for, they feel like she’s saying they’re not as good as her employers and take offense, when all she’s trying to say is that they’re not the same. Of course, this is Elinor Glyn, so there’s a fair bit of slightly gross, extremely conservative stuff about heredity, but there’s also a lot of sense there — after all, that is how one makes a good argument for a lousy point. Anyway, what I’m mostly trying to say here is that it’s really fun when her family is like, “Katherine, since we’re all respectably settled and you work for a living, we don’t think we should see much of each other anymore,” and then Katherine is all, “Okay, cool,” and the next thing you know she’s gone and married a duke.

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4 comments

  1. This sounds amazing! Elinor Glyn is woefully underrated as an Edwardian novelist.


    • She really is. I mean, I make no claims for any literary merit, but she’s so sharp about social stuff, if a bit reactionary.


  2. I’m about 1/4 of the way through the book and what strikes me most so far is Katherine’s attitudes towards sex compared to the other female characters–her sister Gladys gives in to her fiancee just to keep him, and Läo Delemar finds it boring, yet Katherine, intelligent, pragmatic, and progressive, obviously enjoyed herself with Lord Algy.

    I’m very surprised by the frankness of the prose, and Glyn’s stance on relationships, marriage, sex, and love. It’s amazing for the time period (even though the book was published in 1916/17, it’s set in 1911), and very thought-provoking.


    • I get the impression that Elinor Glyn got a kick out of shocking people with her frankness about sex. She certainly seems to count interest in sex as a virtue — throughout her books the characters you’re not supposed to like just tolerate sex.

      Also: just wait. There’s still time for Katherine to go all conventional. But I was definitely won over from the beginning by her attitude towards the trip to Paris with Algy.



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