Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley (1893)

The Tempest family estate was long-established, it was exceedingly rich, and it had passed from father to son through many generations; but late in the nineteenth century there were complications. Those complications and what they led to are set out in this marvelous story, which has elements of the sensation novel and elements of a ‘new woman novel, mixed with a dash of family saga and romance.

It begins with an estrangement between two brothers, which was quite understandable, given that the younger brother ran away with the elder brother’s fiancee. Their marriage was not a happy one and the lady died young leaving as son, Archie, who would grow up in his father’s care and become a reckless spendthrift just like him; and a beautiful daughter, Diana, who was taken away by her grieving grandmother, who wanted to make sure that she had a happier life than her unfortunate mother. It has to be said that she did a wonderful job, and Diana grew into a beautiful, accomplished and compassionate young woman.

The characters of the two women are drawn so very well; they had such depth, they had such life, and the relationship between them, the loved and the understanding, was conveyed quite beautifully.

Their conversations were a joy to read.

“You would make a good wife, Di, but I sometimes think you will never marry,” said Mrs. Courtenay, sadly. She felt the heat.

“Well, granny, I won’t say I feel sure I shall never marry, because all girls say that, and it generally means nothing. But still that is what I feel without saying it. Do you remember poor old Aunt Belle when she was dying, and how nothing pleased her, and how she said at last: ‘I want—I want—I don’t know what I want’? Well, when I come to think of it, I really don’t know what I want. I know what I don’t want. I don’t want a kind, indulgent husband, and a large income, and good horses, and pretty little frilled children with their mother’s eyes, that one shows to people and is proud of. It is all very nice. I am glad when I see other people happy like that. I should like to see you pleased; but for myself—really—I think I should find them rather in the way. I dare say I might make a good wife, as you say. I believe I could be rather a cheerful companion, and affectionate if it was not exacted of me. But somehow all that does not hit the mark. The men who have cared for me have never seemed to like me for myself, or to understand the something behind the chatter and the fun which is the real part of me—which, if I married one of them, would never be brought into play, and would die of starvation. The only kind of marriage I have ever had a chance of seems to me like a sort of suicide—seems as if it would be one’s best self that would be killed, while the other self, the well-dressed, society-loving, ball-going, easy-going self, would be all that was left of me, and would dance upon my grave.”

Mrs. Courtenay was silent. She never ridiculed any thought, however crude and young, if it were genuine. She was one of the few people who knew whether Di was in fun or in earnest, and she knew she was in earnest now.

Mrs. Courtenay were far from wealthy, but they appreciated that they had enough to meet their needs and for Di to go out in the world if they were sensible and lived simply. Colonel Tempest and Archie were less happy with their lots, and any money that came into their hands would be frittered away. The Colonel was bitterly resentful because he knew that when his brother died, the family fortune and estate pass to his son, John, whom everyone except John himself knows to be illegitimate. He visited his brother as he lay dying but it was to no avail.

John Tempest had a difficult start in life. His mother died when he was an infant, his putative father retired and took no interest in him, and so he was a solitary child whose only friends were servants and teachers, who were kind but always had to be deferential. In consequence he grew up to be a man who was set in his ways and opinions; solitary and yet desperately in need of the good opinion and high regard of others.

The poignancy of the telling of John’s story, the understanding of how his circumstances made him the man he became, and the complexity of his characterisation were quite brilliantly done.

When John meets Di he is smitten; and though Diana, strong and independent, has declared that she will never marry her sentiments start to waver. but as she becomes closer with her cousin.

Their marriage would ensure that future heirs were true Tempests, but there is a problem that is shared with the reader at the very start of the story.

One night, in a drunken stupor, Colonel Tempest agrees to a bet, by which he will pay £10,000 if he should ever succeed to the Tempest estate. By the time he realizes that the effect of this wager was to place a bounty on John’s head, it is too late. He is unable to trace everyone who has an interest in the matter, he lacks the means to pay off those he can trace, and serious attempts are made on John’s life.

One of those attempts leads to John discovering his illegitimacy, and that leads to him taking serious action of his own ….

I was swept through this books because Mary Cholmondeley plotted her story so cleverly and because her telling of that story was so very vivid, making my heart rise and fall so many times as I followed the fortunes of John and Di.

The set pieces were glorious – especially the ice fair – and I loved the way that the big house and the natural world were portrayed.

The supporting cast is not quite so well drawn and the subplots are not as well told as the central story. That did no real harm to the telling of the tale; but I was aware that the author had refined her craft by the time she published her masterpiece – ‘Red Pottage’ – at the turn of the century. There are themes and devices here that readers of that book will recognise. She uses them well here but better in that book; but while there are similarities they are very different stories, and I think that each book stands up and is well worth reading on its own merits.

One of this books greatest strengths is its youthful energy and fervour.

There is passionate advocacy of a woman’s right to set the course of her own life; and a very clear light is shone on the unhappy consequences of marriages contracted for reasons other than real love. There is righteous anger at social injustice, at moral weakness, and most of all at men – and women – who stand in the way of what the author has the wisdom and foresight to advocate.

I had an idea how the story would be resolved I really didn’t know how it would get there until it did.

That story, the characters I met and what the author had to say will stay with me.

Through Connemara in a Governess Cart by Somerville & Ross (1893)

When work, life, and other things conspire to keep me at home, surrounded by visitors, at the height of the season there is only one thing to do. I turn to my bookshelves and I look for a Virago Traveller, knowing that those books can take me on wonderful journeys in the best of company.

There were many wonderful possibilities – I really should turn to those particular shelves more often – but the names of Somerville and Ross caught my eye and I knew I had to go with them.

I had thoroughly enjoyed my last journey with those Anglo-Irish Victorian lady writers, to the vine country in the south of France, and a trip to their native land was a lovely prospect.

Our journey began in London:

“My second cousin and I came to London for ten days in the middle of last June, and we stayed there for three weeks, waiting for a fine day. We were Irish, and all the English with whom we had hitherto come in contact had impressed upon us that we should never know what fine weather was till we came to England. Perhaps we came at a bad moment, when the weather, like the shops, was having its cheap sales. 

Things came to a climax one day when we had sat for three-quarters of an hour in a Hungarian bread shop in Regent Street, waiting for the rain to clear off enough to let us get down to the New Gallery. As the fifth party of moist ladies came in and propped their dripping umbrellas against the wall behind us, and remarked that they had never seen such rain, our resolution first began to take shape.

” Hansom ! ” said my second cousin.

” Home ! ” said I.

” England is no fit place for a lady to be in,” said my second cousin, as we drove away in our hansom with the glass down. “

I’d be ashamed to show such weather to a Connemara pig,” I replied.

Now Connemara is a sore subject with my second cousin, who lives within sight of its mountains, and, as is usually the case, has never explored the glories of her native country, which was why I mentioned Connemara. She generally changes the conversation on these occasions ; but this time she looked me steadily in the face and said,

” Well, let’s go to Connemara!”

Now I knew that this account must be at least lightly fictionalised – because this book was derived from a series of articles commissioned by The Ladies’ Pictorial – but the two ladies were just as I remembered them and I quite prepared to believe that the spirit of the account was right.

d718e745953e6ea593642735967444341587343I wondered about the wisdom of travelling to the west coast of Ireland to escape rain, but as soon as I thought of that I was offered an explanation. Somerville and Ross knew that they couldn’t escape the rain, but the trip was the thing and Ireland in the rain would be much more fun than a damp grey London.

And so we were off.

The sea crossing, on a busy ferry, was an uncomfortable one, but the ladies were in spirits spirits and they were more than ready be entertained and to entertain.

“An enterprising advertiser asks, ” What is more terrible than war ? ” We answer unhesitatingly, oranges in the hands of young children.”

You do have to accept that Somerville and Ross were rooted in a particular class and a particular age, but as long as you can accept that you can have a lovely time in their company.

After a bus trip and a night in a hotel they looked out of their window and they began to make a plan:

“We cast our eye abroad upon a drove of Connemara ponies, driven in for sale like so many sheep, and my second cousin immediately formed the romantic project of hiring one of these and a small trap for our Connemara expedition.”

It was a lovely idea but it wasn’t one that could be turned into reality in a small Irish village. After some difficulties the ladies succeeded in hiring a governess cart and a yellow jennet – who they would find had very firm opinions about speed and choice of route t0 to pull them. They loaded their luggage and a good supply of provisions onto the card and set out, full of confidence.

They didn’t have the most comfortable of journeys, they had adventures and misadventures, but they accepted it all with good grace and had a lovely time admiring the countryside, visiting attractions and meeting a wonderful variety of characters.

All of this was turned into a wonderful entertainment, full of wit, and wonderfully observed and described.

I loved this description:

“The coast thrust long rocky fingers into the sea, and we drove across the highly-developed knuckles ; that is, if not picturesque, the most practical description that we can give of this stage of our journey. To try to convey the blueness of the sea, the variety and colour of the innumerable bays and creeks, the solemn hugeness of Lettergash mountain that towered on our right, is futility, and a weariness of the flesh.”

I particularly enjoyed this stop along the way:

“Given a sloping, sunshiny bank of shingle, a mass of yellow lichen-covered rocks between it and a purple-and-emerald streaked sea, a large empty morning, and a cock-shot, there is no reason why one should ever stop throwing stones. That is how my second cousin and I occupied ourselves the morning after our arrival at Renvyle.”

Renvyle was the home of the famous Grace O’Malley, and I must share the ladies’ thoughts about her:

“Grace O’Malley is a lady of too pronounced a type to be ignored, and even our very superficial acquaintance with her history compels us at least to express our regret that such a female suffragist as she would have made has been lost to our century. If she had lived now she would have stormed her way into the London County Council and sat upon that body in every sense of the word;and had the University of Oxford refused to allow her to graduate as whatever she wished, she would indubitably have sacked the town, and borne into captivity all the flower of the Dons. In the reign of Elizabeth, however, her energies were confined to the more remunerative pursuit of piracy.”

There really are so many memorable and quotable passages in this book.

I still don’t know what each lady contributed, but William Trevor’s excellent introduction to the Virago edition of this book explains that the cousins talked over events, debated what should be said in each report, and then one of them was charged with writing it down. That seemed exactly right.

I could see the roots of this book in separate articles – sometimes the chapters didn’t sit together as well as they might – but that did the book no great harm.

I had a wonderful trip in excellent company, and that I’m looking forward to meeting Somerville and Ross again.