It’s been marvellous to see over recent years the resurgence of interest in, and republishing of, many neglected women writers of the 20th century. Virago, of course, led the way with their Modern Classics, launched in the 1980s; Persephone and Furrowed Middlebrow are more recent imprints; then there’s the freshly launched British Library Women Writers series which is going from strength to strength. Michael Walmer, whose books you’ll have seen featured on the Ramblings a number of times, is also responsible for some lovely reprints of unjustly ignored books; his Zephyr series of attractive hardback editions, which I’ve covered before, has featured some intriguing writers like Sarah Grand, Henry Handel Richardson and Elizabeth Berridge, all of whom produced excellent works. His latest release in the series is from another woman author, one who straddles the 19th and 20th centuries and has been released in VMC – F.M. Mayor. The book is a short piece entitled “Miss Browne’s Friend” and it certainly makes intriguing reading.

At just over 30 pages, this is more of a short story than anything else, and it was first published in four parts between June 1914 and March 1915, not long after her first novel, “The Third Miss Symons” had been released. “Miss Browne…” takes as its subject the relationship between the titular lady and a young woman called Mabel Roberts. Set just before the first World War, the story takes place in a time where unmarried women who’d reached a certain age and were obviously not going to marry and settle down became what Barbara Pym would later call ‘excellent women’. Helping to support family members and involving themselves in good works was seen as suitable occupation for them; because, being of a certain class, they would not be expected to do any kind of paid job, and something was needed to fill their time.

So into Miss Browne’s life comes Mabel; of a different class to her benefactor, she has had a Bad Start in life and fallen into what the blurb calls ‘dubious ways’. Miss Browne is charmed by Mabel’s pleasing looks and helps her to find a position as a maid so that the young woman can turn her life around. However, all does not go to plan, and as time goes on, Mabel moves from post to post, with the reports of her behaviour by her employers contrasting sharply to how she appears to Miss Browne. Can the latter help Mabel take a better path in life, or will the younger woman slip back into her bad ways?

Mayor’s story captures so much in so few pages, which is pretty impressive. In particular, the contrast between the two women of completely different backgrounds and class is brilliantly portrayed. Miss Browne is hopelessly naive, with little experience of the kind of world in which Mabel lives and moves; and Mabel, with her disingenuous behaviour and clever ways, can easily persuade Miss Browne that she is the wronged one, not her employers. You can’t really condemn Mabel, though; because as the book makes clear, whatever class you come from, the options for women during this period of time are very limited. Mabel would no doubt appreciate the Cyndi Lauper song “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, because she does – and who can blame her? Meanwhile, poor Miss Browne, well-meaning but blind to the reality of Mabel’s true nature, stumbles on, trying to do her best but never really understanding what it’s like to start life as Mabel did, and to have to deal with what life throws at you when you have no money and no prospects.

“Miss Browne’s Friend” is an enjoyable read which really shows how narrow women’s lives were at the start of 20th century. The various Suffragette and feminist movements over the years would gradually change things (although we are still having to fight for women’s rights in the 21st century); but it’s interesting to look back and at least see how far we’ve come. Mayor’s story is a fascinating read and a vivid little window into the past – highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)