Moth and RustAugust 17, 2011
Until recently I knew Mary Cholmondeley only as the author of Red Pottage, a bestselling turn of the century novel that I feel like I ought to read — so much so that I now sort of don’t want to read it. Then I came across a short story of hers in Pearson’s Magazine and, as I skimmed past it, read just enough to be intrigued.
That story was “The Pitfall,” and I tracked it down in Moth and Rust. I often find, with authors from this era, that what appear to be books of short stories are more often novellas bound with a few extra stories to make them book-length, and that’s the case here. “The Pitfall” is the last story in the book, and possibly the most interesting, because its protagonist is a bit of an antiheroine. Cholmondeley lets us know right away that Lady Mary Carden is dull and conventional and possibly a bit of a hypocrite, but she also shows us how to sympathize with her, and we do — or I did, anyway — much more than we would with a character whose author wasn’t aware that she possessed those qualities. And then Cholmondeley slowly leads Lady Mary to a cruel and indefensible act, and it’s horrible, but interesting.
Of the other stories in the book, only the titular novella is less depressing. “Let Loose” is a ghost story involving the death of a dog, which always kind of freaks me out, and “Geoffrey’s Wife” is a kind of appalling story about a young couple caught up in a mob. Both are sort of straightforward and narrow-focused, almost to the point of claustrophobia, and it works well for them. In “Moth and Rust,” Cholmondeley gets to stretch out a little more, with a story that’s larger in lots of ways: there are more themes, more characters, more plots, and more locations, as well as two intertwined love stories.
The love story that ends badly is that of Janet Black and George Trefusis. Janet is exceedingly beautiful and pretty intensely in love with George, but uneducated, uncultured, and, frankly, stupid. George is way above her socially, but he hasn’t got much going for him except his extreme moral rectitude. You can see where this is going. It’s the same place it always goes. Lady Anne Varney, pretty, quietly intelligent and intensely well-bred, has more luck with Stephen Vanbrunt, her rags-to-riches millionaire soul-mate. I enjoyed both characters very much — Stephen is innately sympathetic to children and dogs, but a little bit confused by women and society, and Anne has to negotiate the terrain very carefully to convince him that’s she’s not just interested in his money. They reminded me a bit of Lady Ethelrida and Francis Markrute in Elinor Glyn’s The Reason Why, except that the situation is reversed, and somewhat less ridiculous.
I think Mary Cholmondeley is pretty good, but she’s got an incredible gift for making me really uncomfortable. She writes the kind of stories where awful things happen, and she makes sure you can tell that the awful things are going to happen, so that you get to dread them for as long as possible. I have yet to decide whether this is clever or mean. Or, possibly, both.