The Poor Relation by Susanna Bavin – a story of a woman who must fight for her ambitions
Mary Maitland is the centre of a saga beginning in 1908 which poses many questions embedded in an extremely engaging story. This is not a story of many deaths and destitution – rather a story of a girl from a respectable family who is continually linked to her relatives who have the position, the influence and the money. They are used as a threat, and eventually actively work against her, as she struggles to assert herself in a world already against her as a woman. The unfairness of unequal wages, being passed over for promotion and continual assumptions about her abilities is one element of the battles she must continually fight. The more secret deliberate thwarting of her ambitions by her relatives means that she loses her opportunities. She is accidentally involved in the growing fight for women’s suffrage. The important thing is that she has tremendous self belief and drive. Other women also do their best; the nurse unable to continue working, the stepmother who makes the best of a marriage and motherhood, an elderly lady who realises that she must fight for her very home. This book is about the survival of people against the social pressures on them. No one is wholly bad or wholly good; this is a novel filled with real people in a setting that is deeply researched, but even more deeply felt. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this impressive book.
Mary is the daughter of Edward, whose mother married a Kimber, the local family who have enormous influence in the area. Once a year the family are invited to the big house, where their social inferiority is emphasised at every point. Mary is enormously frustrated that despite ten years of efficient and effective work in the town council, she is always passed over by younger men who she has trained. Her father, a well drawn if annoying character for the reader, rules his household strictly, always with an eye to perceived objections by the grand Kimber relations. Not that they are happy in their lot, as Lady Kimber has being crossed in her romantic life too often. She is therefore bitter and ambitious for her daughter, Eleanor. Her clothes show her personality clearly; she is described as wearing a hat on which “ostrich feathers would quiver with her indignation”. She especially against Mary, as symbolizing her unfortunate relations by marriage.
Another strand is the dissolute Greg, whose expectations are dashed in the early part of the novel, and he finds his life difficult, despite his comfortable lifestyle. Dr Brewer becomes involved in settling disputes following a surprising will reading. The doctor, with his colleague, have ambitions to set up a community clinic, but their continual difficulties show the limitations of social and welfare provision at the time.
This book cleverly intertwines the stories of several individuals and carefully builds up their backstories, some of the reasons that they behave as they do. It is written with enormous understanding of the time, and people who lived in widely varying circumstances. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, feeling caught up in Mary’s story in particular, and was reluctant to put it down without discovering her progress through her fascinating experiences.
This is a very involving book which quite literally kept me awake, in a good way. At the moment there is a lot of concern for mental health, and whether concentration on reading books is possible. As you may appreciate, I find different books are good for different moods, but this one is the sort that truly involves the reader. Different from the funny, the safe, the re read or the classic. Which books are attracting you at the moment? Are you able to get hold of books now that you cannot browse in bookshops or visit libraries in the same ways? Are there particular books you would love to get your hands on but cannot at the moment?