A review of Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy E Smith
This lovely and beguiling book, originally published in 1959 but reissued as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint by Dean Street Press, was a pleasure from start to finish. Do not be deceived by its cosy, rather twee style as there is something darker, deeper, and more thought-provoking lurking inside the covers.
Alison Penny is a spinster who seems quite content with her rather humdrum life, throwing herself into the activities of the Yorkshire village in which she lives and enjoying the company of her life-long maid, Ada. The book starts on her fortieth birthday. Even her birthdays have a certain rhythm and routine to them but this year her eagerly anticipated letter from George, her erstwhile boyfriend whom her parents forced her to reject, has not arrived, the first time that has happened for twenty years. To hide her disappointment, she goes for a walk which takes her to the local park.
Seeing a woman steadfastly walk into a duck pond with the intention of ending her life shakes Alison out of her reverie and she persuades the woman to come out and takes her under her wing. Miss Plum, for it is she, has entered her life and things will not ever be the same again.
Going through life with the moniker of Victoria Plum is a tad unfortunate and the current bearer of this name is a fragile flower, seemingly rootless, lachrymose, but with an extraordinary hold and influence over those she meets. Ada, the live-in maid, takes against her immediately but Alison is more sympathetic initially, until she discovers a darker side to a woman who is not as hapless as she may seem.
Miss Penny’s life is further disrupted by the unexpected arrival of George whose rough and uncouth ways cause a stir in the locality. He even proposes to her, suggesting that they get married on the following Thursday, only to receive one of the greatest put downs in literature – “but Thursday is the women’s institute”. There is no coming back from that.
During the course of the book, we meet the rather ineffectual vicar who struggles to maintain a relationship with his teenage son, Ronnie, and the rather prissy former bank manager, Stanley, who likes everything just so, is a hypochondriac and wears a corset. Each, in their own way, fall under Miss Plum’s spell. The latter part of the story recounts how Alison and Ada plot to relieve themselves of responsibility for Victoria, how her going missing causes panic before all the strands of the tale are neatly resolved.
Cosy as the tale may seem, each of the main characters we meet is forced to take stock of their lives and consider how much they value relationships and how they see their futures panning out. Miss Plum’s arrival is the catalyst for all that. There is no magic formula, and they all have to wrestle with the problems and resolve their futures, some deciding to make concerted efforts to change and others realizing that the grass is never greener on the other side of the road. It also has a bit of a feminist agenda, highlighting the struggles and difficulties women had then, the 1950s, and still do today to enjoy a modicum of independence, financial and mental.
Smith writes with an undemanding style, but that too can be deceiving. Each of her characters are well-drawn, warts and all, and the reader can easily relate to them and even empathise with their predicaments. There is also a gentle humour pervading through Smith’s narrative with some delicious turns of phrase and acute observations and her love of the Yorkshire countryside, its dialect and its ways shines through loud and clear.
This is a wonderful book and is thoroughly recommended.