Patricia Brent, Spinster

[This is an old draft I am just now publishing, so the time references are a bit off.]

“But my dear Miss Brent,” said Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, “you never told us that you were engaged.
“Didn’t I?” enquired Patricia indifferently.
“And you don’t wear a ring,” interposed Miss Sikkum eagerly.
“I hate badges of servitude,” remarked Patricia with a laugh.
“But an engagement ring,” insinuated Miss Sikkum with a self-conscious giggle.
“One is freer without a ring,” replied Patricia.
Miss Wangle’s jaw dropped. “Marriages are—“ she began.
“Made in heaven. I know,” broke in Patricia. But you try wearing Turkish slippers in London, Miss Wangle, and you’ll soon want to go back to the English boots. It’s silly to make things in one place to be worn in another; they never fit.”

The backlog of reviews I have to write is shameful, but perhaps it is fitting that I start with Patricia Brent, Spinster, by Herbert George Jenkins, which I learned about from Melody’s blog. It’s my most recent read (just last week), and also the perfect example of why I usually don’t read during the school year.

I am currently serving as the faculty advisor for a club with a large time commitment (not quite the level of a varsity sport, but close), and find that I have very little time for reading. The joy of Google Books is that I can download one onto my laptop and then have it with me when I have my work finished and need a little break between the end of the school day and when the activity starts in the evening. The problem is that the books I am drawn to when tired and stressed are mostly of the escapist nature, and quite unwilling to be confined to neat little chapters here and there.  I feel a bit like I did as a young girl in bed with a Bobbsey Twins book when my mom came in to turn out the light and I begged for one more chapter. Luckily I was reading this on Friday last week, so I didn’t need to do any prep for the next day and could use my lunch break to squeeze in a few chapters. I finished it after school that day.

Melody’s summary is much more detailed than my own, but the basic premise of the plot is that 24-year-old Patricia Brent is unhappy with her life. She works as a secretary for an aspiring politician, Mr. Bonsor, whose wife’s social and political goals far outweigh his own. Both her parents are dead and the only family remaining is the overbearing Aunt Adelaide. Her fellow “guests” at Mrs. Craske-Morton’s boarding house are rather a pitiful lot, outwardly unaware of their own failings and ready to latch onto any topic of interest, such as Miss Wangle’s flaunting of her deceased great-uncle, a bishop. After overhearing one of her catty remarks, speculating about why Patricia is still a spinster, Patricia follows a rash impulse. She remarks that she will not be in for the evening meal because she will be dining that evening at the Quadrant Grill Room, one of the town’s nicest hotels, with her fiancé who is recently returned from the army.

The trouble is, said fiancé does not exist. And when Miss Wangle and her cronies show up at the Grill Room to spy on Patricia she frantically sits down at the table of a man in khaki and begs him to play along with her charade for the evening. Her companion turns out to be Lord Peter Bowen, a lieutenant-colonel just arrived home, and delighted to be Patricia’s fiancé. In fact, he falls for her hard, and begins sending her flowers and chocolates and telegrams at the boarding house. Patricia, on the other hand, refuses to believe that anything good can come from this relationship, now matter how much her treacherous heart leaps at the sight of him. It will take an all-out war on Peter’s part to convince Patricia he is in earnest, enlisting the help of those at the boarding house and also his sister Lady Tan.

Despite knowing how much I would like the plot, I was sorely tempted to stop reading by the second chapter because of how much unnecessary (and frankly, depressing) background information was provided. We hear all about Patricia’s lonely childhood with a father who didn’t know how to show affection after her mother’s death, Mrs. Bonsor’s manipulation of her husband and condescension towards her rich but lower-status father Mr. Trigg. Clearly, Jenkins never heard of “show, don’t tell.”

The story picks up when Patricia meets Lord Peter (I wonder if their initials are both PB by intent?), because he is such a delightful character. He has wealth, a title, kind personality, sense, of humor, and apparently good looks. I was this close to falling in love with him myself, until I read the line where he “screwed his glass into his eye.” I’m sure it was fashionable at the time, but I’m sorry, I could never tolerate a man who wears a monocle. All I can think of is the king’s assistant in Disney’s Cinderella.

For every pathetic character at the boarding house, there is a considerate and enthusiastic character looking out for Patricia’s happiness. That’s what really sold the book for me. Patricia’s loneliness not only needed to be solved by a love interest, but by stimulating company who appreciated her for what she was worth and engaged her knowledge and humor. She already has Mrs. Hamilton at the boarding house, the sweetest little old lady (whom Patricia has the strange habit of physically picking up from time to time), and Mr. Trigg, who tends to treat her as a surrogate daughter. What she lacks, however, is a circle of people her own age, which is where Tan and her friends come in.

Tan is pretty much just as perfect as Peter. They are close siblings willing to drop everything for the other, as Tan does here. She is also beautiful, strong-willed enough to put Patricia in her place, and wise as Solomon. Of course, she also possesses two of my pet peeves in heroines: violet-blue eyes (Patricia has them too, and I don’t see them nearly as frequently in life as I do in books), and an unusual name. In this case, Jenkins explains that her father the duke named her after his favorite Tanagra figurines even though her mother hated to saddle her with the name. I interpret this as Jenkins thought it sounded cool but his wife vetoed it in real life. It’s only nominally better than “Quail.”

Basically the book comes down to this: Patricia doesn’t want to admit to herself how much Peter and his attentions have quickly come to mean to her, because a) she grew up with Aunt Adelaide brainwashing her against men and love, b) has never been in a relationship before, or even met a man who interested her romantically, and is kind of overwhelmed, and c) doesn’t think anything good can come from a relationship founded in deceit. Everybody else tries to convince her otherwise. If you can buy the reasons for why Patricia is so obstinate, then you’ll enjoy the book. If not, you’ll want to smack her and wonder why no one else has. I was mostly in the former camp. Plus, there’s an awesome chapter about an air raid that humanizes everyone at the boarding house and makes the book worth it in and of itself.

[Random vintage tidbit: At one point a character puts ink on the seams of her black dress to freshen it up. I’ve never heard of that before and a Google search isn’t giving me any information. Was this a common practice?]

The book is dedicated to “the Patricias of the world.” I thought it was odd at first, but as I got to know Patricia I realized that her plight was actually probably common back then. With no family, and a career that keeps her relatively isolated during the day, she doesn’t really have the opportunity to meet anyone her own age. Her loneliness is not just the romantic type. I can definitely think of times in my life when I’ve felt like Patricia.

I was surprised when I went back to write this review to look at the author; I hadn’t noticed before that it was written by a man, and based on the plot and characters I just assumed female. Now I am curious as to what else he may have written. Good thing I can just check Google Books.

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Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 10:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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