“He can make you a rich woman,” says Lady Patty. “And that’s everything nowadays. Do, dear child, try to think of it. You know all my money lapses after my death back to a cousin of your father’s, and you will be left with nothing but a paltry two hundred a year or so. You say Sir Rufus is mercenary; but when I told him all about that, he spoke most beautifully,—poetically, indeed; said he was willing to take you without a rag, or—”
“Money is nothing,—nothing at all,” says the young girl, quietly, but with conviction.
“Oh!” cries Lady Patty, falling back in her seat as if stricken by some mortal blow. “And this is my own flesh and blood!”
The Irish-born Margaret Wolfe Hungerford was a popular and prolific writer of the late 19th century. In 1877, after only six years of marriage, she was left a widow with three young children to care for. Like so many other women before her, Hungerford—or Mrs Argles, as she was then—turned to her pen to supplement her income, and soon found herself in the happy position of having a public clamouring for her work. Although she remarried in 1882, and bore three more children, Hungerford continued to write at a ferocious clip, publishing short stories and journal articles as well as literally dozens of novels. She was successful on both sides of the Atlantic; in America, her novels were published simply as by “The Duchess”.
Hungerford is a good example of new kind of novelist that appeared in the wake of the collapse of the circulating libraries and the death of the three-volume novel. She specialised in single-volume works that offered bright and breezy dialogue, vivid character sketches, and a view of Society that was cynical yet understanding. Though her works themselves are largely forgotten today, Hungerford left a permanent mark on the world when, in her second novel, Molly Bawn, she coined the phrase, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Published in 1892, Lady Patty: A Sketch is a representative Hungerford work, albeit one from the less substantial end of the scale: a frothy and amusing sketch of modern society, though not one without a darker undercurrent. The Lady Patty of the title is Lady Patricia Gifford, a flighty widow, good-natured but frivolous and fundamentally selfish, whose comfortably hedonistic life gets a crimp in it when her only child, Helen, reaches an age to be launched into society.
Although Lady Patty enjoys a comfortable income, without a son her estate will revert upon her death to a cousin of her late husband’s; Helen has no separate fortune. We learn that at the period of her widowhood, when Helen was still a baby, Patty did briefly contemplate reducing her expenses and living a simplified life in order to make provision for her daughter; but…
From this idea, however, Lady Patty had revolted early in her widowhood. If she were to retrench to the last farthing, and convey herself and her baby into squalid lodgings (she always went to extremes in everything), would that really be doing her duty towards her little daughter? Who would marry a girl who was brought up in penury, uneducated, unknown? No! clearly it was not her duty. Better, far better to go boldly into society,—put a good face on it, live among decent people, and give the girl a fair chance of meeting eligible partners. Probably the little one would turn up trumps in the long run if given a fair opening. And a small house in Park Lane, and a brougham, were indispensable for this chance! Helen should have them! Yes, she should!
Helen was an infant in arms when she came to this heroic determination; but that did not matter…
Seventeen years later, however, Helen’s provision has become a matter of some urgency. Having looked around for a sufficiently wealthy match for her daughter, Lady Patty seizes upon the rich but coarse-natured and miserly Sir Rufus Greyly, impatiently dismissing the fact that her innocent daughter finds him both physically and morally repellent as a mere detail, and of no importance.
We learn very little about the specifics of Helen’s upbringing, but are able to infer easily enough that she has only minimal time in her mother’s company. (In the letter to her sister-in-law which opens the novel, we find Lady Patty packing Helen off to Florence: “So sweet of dear Lady Western to take darling Helen off my hands for so many months…”) Helen has grown up to be everything that Patty is not: which is to say, naïve, earnest and trusting. This creates something of a dilemma for her mother. On one hand she revels in the fact that her daughter takes her entirely at her own estimation—Patty has impressed upon Helen the idea that her life has been one long sacrifice for her child’s benefit—but on the other, it requires constant vigilance, so as not to let the mask slip. And how to balance a full social calendar, a passion for dancing and a love of flattery and flirtation with a reputation for single-minded motherly devotion?
“And do you know,” says Helen confidentially, “why she is youthful always? It is because she is so sweet and good.”
Lord Vysely stared a little harder.
“She loves everybody,” goes on the girl, her charming face aglow with tenderness. “She is kind to everybody. She has a lovely mind. I shall not be as young as mamma, when I am her age.”
Vysely, who had seen Lady Patty half an hour earlier flirting vigorously with a handsome Guardsman, of distinctly questionable morals, in the dim recesses of a conservatory, begins to wonder whether, if she is really ‘so sweet and good’, she had not been trying to redeem that artful Guardsman from the error of his ways. But Lady Patty’s face, painted and powdered, is still before him, and Lady Patty’s fan alone might have given one a lesson in coquetry. A sense of amusement takes possession of him, mingled with a profound tenderness for this grave, earnest, loving child beside him…
The depiction of high society in Lady Patty is unusually, even disturbingly, cynical for a novel of this type. It is not the shallow, mercenary Lady Patty who surprises us, however, but that the narrative does little to contradict her assumptions about how the world really works. Early on we are introduced to Caroline Cholmondeley, whose clear-sighted attitude to her sister-in-law and her sense of humour seem to tag her as the novel’s voice of reason. It is something of a shock, therefore, when Mrs Cholmondeley’s opinions on money and marriage turn out to coincide with Lady Patty’s own. Far from recoiling from the notion of a marriage between the delicate Helen and a gross sensualist like Sir Rufus, she is only irritated with the obvious blunders the baronet has made in the course of his heavy-handed courtship (giving away his atheism, for instance), and wonders aloud why he has not sealed the deal by plying Helen with diamonds. Her own thorough dislike of the man impacts in no way upon her view of him as an eligible husband.
Mrs Cholmondeley is, as it happens, in very much the same situation as Lady Patty, having been left a widow in straitened circumstances and with one child, her son, Tom. Like Lady Patty she takes it for granted that the only sensible basis for marriage is money, let the chips fall afterwards where they may; and so long and so thoroughly has she impressed this point upon Tom, she foresees no danger at all in allowing him, even encouraging him, to spend time with his penniless young cousin. Patty, on the other hand, takes it for granted that since Tom is an impecunious officer, he is exactly the kind of ineligible young man that Helen would fall in love with. And after all, why would she resist Sir Rufus so strenuously, unless she loved another?
As Patty devotes more and more time and energy into trying to force Helen into a wholly mercenary marriage, it becomes harder and harder for her to keep up the pretence of nobility. She compromises by pretending honestly to believe that Sir Rufus is the one man capable of making Helen happy—which is, after all, all that she wants from life. Helen doesn’t believe it, but she does believe that her mother believes it. Must she break her mother’s heart, then, or marry a man she despises?
The crudity of the baronet’s courtship exposes Lady Patty’s venality every bit as much as it does his own. His attempt to force kisses on Helen sternly rebuffed, Sir Rufus does eventually try bribing her with diamonds instead—at the calculated urging of the far from disinterested Tom, who knows very well that the girl’s reaction will be the polar opposite of what her tight-fisted suitor expects:
It is a handsome gift, no doubt. In fact, Sir Rufus, having been fortunate beyond his wont over his moderate betting, had felt he might now spend a little of his winnings on the woman he has elected to honour. It had hurt him sorely to expend that three hundred pounds; but he had so far sacrificed himself. They—the diamonds—would be sure to buy the girl. No woman, he thought, gazing of the sparkling stones and counting the cost of them, could be cruel to the giver of them. And once married, no more gifts need be bestowed. In that way marriage would be a saving…
Helen’s instinctive, disgusted rejection of the gift brings matters to a crisis, and for the moment exposes the real woman behind Lady Patty’s mask:
“But, mamma, I don’t like him; I don’t care for him.”
“What on earth has that got to do with it?” exclaims Lady Patty, throwing up her pretty bejewelled hands in quite an agonised fashion. “What does it matter how you regard him? He is rich. He has money, position; that means he is a power,—a creature to make use of.”
“Oh, but there must be something beyond all that!” says the girl, pressing her slender fingers together.
“There is not,” says her mother with decision. “There is a great deal of nonsense talked about love, and independence, and so forth,—if there wasn’t, how could the poets and novelists live?—but it is all a fraud. Nothing is of any consequence save comfort, and ease of mind, and good frocks, and a decent house; and money means all that.”
The second surprise bordering on shock in Lady Patty is that Helen’s artlessness is not the object of unalloyed authorial approval. Throughout the novel people are moved to stop and stare at Helen in disbelief, trying to decide whether anyone could be as ingenuous as she seems to be, or whether it is all a brilliantly maintained bit of play-acting, just what one would expect of a daughter of Lady Patty Gifford. There is more than a hint in the text that although Helen’s high-mindedness and simplicity might be all very well in an ideal world, this is not an ideal world—but rather, one in which such impractical attributes do not necessarily wear well.
There is, in the end, even something cruel about Helen’s naivety. Lacking the capacity to put herself into the mindset of others, she has a tendency to assume that others feel as she does, until painfully taught otherwise. Thus, her cousin Tom, being no more to her than the brother she never had, must necessarily hold brotherly feelings towards her. She does not hesitate to appeal to him for help, or to ask his advice—or to confide in him her love for another…
In spite of his mother’s stern life-lessons, Tom does fall in love with Helen almost at their first meeting. But though he does his best to avert the threat of Sir Rufus Greyly, he is not foolish enough to imagine that this will have any effect upon his own situation. With his worldly goods not even amounting to the “few hundreds” that will be Helen’s portion should her mother die before she marries, Tom can only fight to conceal his secret misery when an oblivious Helen pours out the joy of her heart to him, after discovering most unexpectedly that she is loved:
Then, all suddenly, a most lovely light grows upon her face… “He loves me! He loves only me. Do you mind letting me speak to you about it, Tom? There is only you, you know, and it is such a comfort to tell somebody about it. I never,” eagerly, “thought he could possibly be in love with me! Did you, Tom?”
“No, I did not,” shortly.
“It was a revelation,” says the girl. She lifts her hands and presses them against her pretty head. A smile, rich as spring in promise, parts her lips. “I feel alive for the first time today,” says she,—“alive and awake. Oh, how dear and lovely a thing it is to be living!” She turns to him impulsively and holds out her hands. “How beautiful a place is the world,” cries she, gladly.
Cholmondeley takes her hands, but hardly presses them. He has grown very pale…
The impression we get from Lady Patty is that the basis of Margaret Wolfe Hungerford’s success as a writer was her happy knack of having her cake and eating it, too. Thus she may both produce an amusing but unnerving sketch of society and poke fun at her own rather humourless heroine, but in the end—along with all the other “poets and novelists”, we gather, who have to make a living, after all—she is moved to stretch out a kind, authorial hand and pluck the innocent Helen out of the wolf’s den, removing her to a place of safety.
Soon after her debut, Helen makes the acquaintance of the Marquis of Vysely, a wealthy and serious-minded young man who devotes himself to social reform and charitable works in the East End; Lady Patty, unsurprisingly, considers him a dead bore. Common report has given Vysely to a Miss Chester, a plain but equally wealthy and serious-minded young woman who is also devoted to philanthropic works. (There is much dissatisfied muttering about the selfishness inherent in two rich people marrying each other.) Helen, knowing no better, takes gossip for gospel; and so, though there is no-one she likes better than Lord Vysely, she views him as, in effect, a married man, and treats him accordingly.
But common report has gotten it wrong as usual: Miss Chester is engaged to a friend of Vysely’s, at present in India; their friendship is based equally upon this shared connection, and their mutual interest in good works. Vysely is literally the last to know what is being said about him, and is thus quite unable to get a handle on the infuriating detachment with which Helen behaves towards him:
“There was nobody there I cared to see.”
“Miss Chester was there,” says Helen, very softly.
“Yes, yes; she was a relief, certainly. She is one in a thousand,” says Vysely. “One can converse with her; one can only talk to the others. But still—”
His pause is eloquent, but the girl, filled with her belief in his engagement to Miss Chester, sees nothing in it. She looks back at him sweetly, calmly; and, meeting that undisturbed glance, a sense of disappointment fills Lord Vysely’s breast.
Has she no feeling? Is she at heart what she looks outwardly, a pale, lovely statue, a thing of marble? Was there ever so still a girl? Oh, to move her!
Helen, in fact, is in no doubt of her own feelings, but considering Vysely as forbidden fruit, she buries them as deeply as she can—and so successfully that Vysely comes to the gloomy conclusion that she is lacking in passion—“an icicle”. Yet with every meeting he is more and more drawn to her sweetness and innocence. At last he begins courting her, at least after a fashion—not in ballrooms or in any of the usual ways, but by finding moments alone with her and trying to resolve the apparent contradictions in her nature.
(In one unexpected and charming interlude, Vysely takes advantage of a confidence and meets Helen at the zoo: This…makes Vysely look at her with an expression too ardent by far, but providentially she is looking at a camel…)
And at last, he speaks to her of love. Still thinking him Miss Chester’s fiancé, this revelation of her idol’s feet of clay is a terrible blow to Helen. Her involuntary recoil, however, reveals her heart just as thoroughly as Vysely could wish:
He kisses her little hands, and, lifting them, lays them around his neck. Is it—can it—be true that they seem to gladly clasp themselves there? “I have doubted so often—you have made me suffer so much,” whispers he, “that I still doubt. Helen, say you love me.”
“I do, oh, I do indeed!” whispers she back, clinging to him. Is this his icicle?—the cold indifferent creature he had often imagined her—?
But how to tell Lady Patty?—Lady Patty, who that very day has taken to her bed in a state of nervous collapse brought on by her frantic worry over her daughter? Seeing that Helen is genuinely frightened at the prospect of breaking the news of her engagement to any man other than Sir Rufus, Vysely bites back the cynical words that rise to his lips, but recognises only too clearly—as indeed he has done from the very beginning of their acquaintance—that Helen has a bitter disillusionment in store for her:
“I wish you would read his letter first,” says Helen, faintly. “He meant you to read it first. It is Lord Vysely, mamma, and—”
“I knew I should make you ill again; but he said I had better tell you at once; and so did Tom. Darling mother, forgive me. I know you have set your heart on Sir Rufus, and I know you consider George—Lord Vysely—dull, and stupid, and a bore, but—but I don’t!”
“Do you mean to tell me,” says Lady Patty, leaning forward and speaking almost hoarsely, “that the Marquis of Vysely wishes to marry you?”
And with that, the mask comes off—once and for all, and with a resounding clatter:
“And now,” gayly, “we can give that odious Sir Rufus his congé without any further delay.”
“Odious! Sir Rufus! Mamma!” says the girl, growing very pale.
“Well, well, darling—yes, I know, of course, what you mean.” She has the grace to be faintly ashamed of herself. “But— A most estimable young man, I dare say, Helen; but if you could know what he has cost me in mental anxiety— I assure you,” says Lady Patty, with an angry little moue, “the way that man has been tormenting poor unfortunate little me would fill a book. But now—”
A forlorn feeling that there is unmistakeable revenge in her mother’s expression at this moment drives Helen into absolute silence. Her mother!—who had seemed to love Sir Rufus!—to regard him as the one desirable person to whom her daughter might safely be given! Perhaps something in the girl’s wide gaze reaches the mother’s heart in spite of the crust that has grown over it.
“Of course, I esteem him highly—highly,” says she, laughing rather uncertainly… “I say, Helen,” says Lady Patty presently, with a quick, bright smile of intelligence, “wasn’t it well you didn’t accept that diamond necklet?”
Sir Rufus chooses this inauspicious moment to call. Nervous collapse, sick headache and imminent lingering death long forgotten, Lady Patty leaps from her bed, looking forward to dismissing forever the the man to whom she promised far too much, and who is now nothing more to her than a unwelcome reminder of her own crass selfishness. The prospective mother of a marchioness, Lady Patty sweeps downstairs in fine fettle, oblivious to the bewildered distress left in her wake:
“Don’t be frightened, darling. (Where’s that gold bangle?) I’ll polish him off in no time. Hideous little monster! It always went against my sense of justice, Helen, that he should be given to so charming a girl as you. Now, bear me out in that with Vysely. But no matter; I’ll make short work of him now. I’ll give him to understand he can’t come here any more, tormenting and worrying and whimpering, just as if he could ever hope to marry a girl like you! Really, you know, such presumption! (Is my hair all right at the back?) You don’t want him coming here, talking his insane nonsense, darling? On the whole, I do think he is the vulgarest young man I know—eh?”
“I thought him so,” falters Helen, vaguely. Is it all true? If not, what is true? What is she to think,—believe?…