Patricia Brent, SpinsterNovember 17, 2011
Here goes possibly the nicest of the reader recommendations from week before last. Thank you Mark; I am exceedingly grateful.
I tend not to deal well with characters who seem to go out of their way to mire themselves in difficulties, but Patricia Brent, Spinster — by Herbert George Jenkins — did it so charmingly that I can’t really bring myself to complain. The title character overhears some of the catty older women at her boarding house gossiping about her — and, incidentally, adding a few years to her age — and tries to get back at them by casually referring to a fiancé over dinner that night. She’s not ready for the questions they throw at her, and she ends up being a lot more specific about the fake fiancé than she intended. Like, to the point of making up a name, rank and regiment for him. This is sort of embarrassingly awkward, obviously, and then it gets worse. Patricia goes out to dinner the following night for a nonexistent date with the fictional Major Brown and some of her fellow boarders follow her, which, a) aren’t you glad you’re not friends with them? and b) things are now acutely, humiliatingly awkward.
So Patricia does the insane, inevitable thing. She grabs of hold of the first soldier she sees and makes him have dinner with her. She continues to be pretty embarrassed by the situation, but she shouldn’t be, because Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Peter Bowen, D.S.O., is very pleased to have met her. The rest of the book is Peter dancing attendance while Patricia tries to make him go away — while secretly wishing that she could continue their fake engagement in some way that doesn’t mean her pride has to take a fall.
The book can be frustrating at times, because Peter is ridiculously perfect, and he and Patricia really like each other, but to Patricia it looks like all the advantages are on his side, and it’s only when she’s been convinced that he needs her as much as she needs him that she admits she loves him. I mean, these characters really don’t seem like equals when they meet, and 90% of the book is Patricia figuring out that they can be. I don’t know if I can adequately convey how much I like that.
I also really enjoyed the supporting characters, in spite of the fact that they tend to fall into good guy/bad guy groups. On one hand you’ve got Patricia’s fellow boarders, her employer and his wife, and Patricia’s self-designated “only surviving relative.” They’re oblivious, and misguided, but funny in a way that didn’t make me cringe. Then you have Peter’s family and friends and Mr. Triggs, Patricia’s employer’s father-in-law. They’re sensible, welcoming, fun to be around, and, with the exception of Mr. Triggs, pretty glamorous. I particularly loved Lady Tanagra, Peter’s sister. And Lady Peggy, who introduces Patricia to her salon-like household and makes her slide down the stairs on a tea tray. I find it a little weird that pretty much all of the good people come from Peter’s world and not Patricia’s, but Patricia feels weird about it, too, so I don’t mind so much.
Another cool thing is the World War I setting. For much of the book the characters seem to be blissfully unaware that there’s a war going on, in spite of the fact that the hero is in the army. And I thought, okay, this is a lighthearted romantic comedy, albeit a surprisingly sophisticated one (Yes, I use the word ‘albeit’ in my internal monologue. Frequently.). We’re mostly pretending there isn’t a war on, and that’s fine. But then all of a sudden we weren’t pretending anymore, and I don’t want to spoil the most dramatic incident in a really enjoyable book, so I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s really cool.
As is the entire book. It’s hard to find books that gracefully occupy a middle ground between fluffy and serious, and obviously this a lot more on the fluffy side, but it never made me feel like I was sacrificing anything (solid characterization, causality, etc.) for the fluff. Even given the massive dose of self-indulgence that is the premise.