I can’t remember what originally induced me to download a copy of Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins. On paper, it isn’t really my thing. Published in 1918, it follows the eponymous Patricia, aged 27, who works as the secretary to an MP and lives in an extremely dismal boarding house in London. She has no especial desire to get married, as she values her independence highly and – while she doesn’t particularly like her job – she does like having a job. The co-residents of her boarding house are always getting at her about being single, and one evening she has had about enough. She announces to the manager of the house that she won’t be in for dinner the next night, as she’s going out with her – entirely fictitious – fiancé. Unfortunately, she tells them where the two of them will be eating, so – when she shows up alone at the restaurant – she finds that her housemates have taken over a table in order to spy on her. Unable to face the embarrassment of owning up to the scheme, she goes up to a man sitting alone and greets him effusively as her fiancé, privately begging him to play along. He is amused and delighted, and, of course, proceeds to fall in love with her – which is very much not what she had planned for the evening, and finds to be quite the inconvenience. The rest of the book follows the increasingly convoluted lies that Patricia and her pseudo-fiancé have to engage in so that they can cover up the first one.
(Incidentally, I read a free ebook, so it didn’t have a cover, but I absolutely love the one I found for this book online – doesn’t it convey that terrible feeling of being gossiped about?)
Although romantic comedies do not tend to be my thing, I loved this. It was more like reading a screwball comedy than anything else (though obviously it was both too early and too English to really qualify). It’s got most of the hallmarks – social classes in conflict, battle of the sexes, playing with power dynamics, elements of the farcical, stubborn and determined female main character. It’s absolutely acidic in the way it gets at the types of comments that people made – that people still make – to women who aren’t married. Perhaps the best way to describe Patricia Brent, Spinster, is that I think I got from it what Georgette Heyer fans get from her novels. I’ve never been able to get on board with Heyer, but this was a deeply enjoyable, ridiculous comedy with a bit of romance snuck in from time to time. Much of the pleasure of this book, for me, was in Patricia’s wry inner monologue about all the other infuriating people she must put up with. I wanted to pick out some quotes to illustrate this, but because of the nature of the novel, every moment that made me laugh out loud (there were many) depended on some previous moment. The other author it reminded me of was PG Wodehouse – Jenkins is much more cutting in his humour than Wodehouse, but the way that one ridiculous situation led to the next and to the next was very Wodehousian.
Despite the acerbity and wit of the novel, though, there was also some unexpected sweetness. Not particularly in the romance, which is strongly influenced by the principle of More Shenanigans, More Quickly – but in the some of the other relationships, especially Patricia’s friendship with elderly widower Mr Triggs. Oh, I loved Mr Triggs. He ought to be a stereotype – he is a stereotype – he’s a lovely old man, who misses his wife terribly and admires Patricia’s gumption and wants her to be happy. He’s common as muck but also filthy rich, which makes him an awkward albatross around the necks of his socially climbing daughter and son-in-law. Mr Triggs is a very broad sort of type. And yet there are enough touches of real originality that I just fell completely in love with him. His support of and investment in Patricia’s happiness is a genuine delight. I’m a real sucker for intergenerational friendships in books, probably because I’m so grateful for the ones in my own life. For the same reason, I’m also pretty picky about them being done well, which – within the confines of a comedy that sometimes ventures close to farce – I think this is. Patricia’s friendship with the one woman in her lodging house who isn’t awful, Mrs Hamilton, was also quite sweet, although there I think it edged a bit closer to cliché.
As with any book published over a century ago, there’s a little bit of cultural dissonance, and part of the plot hinges on it. Patricia’s motivations are so informed by her embarrassment at walking up to a stranger and “picking him up”, a phrase that gets used several times, that you’d think she’d stripped naked and danced the can-can in the middle of the restaurant. She really seems to feel she’s done something terribly shameful, and once I decided to just accept that she had (even if I couldn’t see it), I enjoyed the book much more. She’s a very spiky, proud sort of woman, so a lot of people on Goodreads have called her a bitch. Interestingly, that term often gets used in the same reviews that complain about sexism in the novel. There certainly is some underlying sexism – again, this novel was was published over a century ago – though I honestly felt like quite a lot of that was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Jenkins will often say something about how all women think and behave, and then Patricia or one of the other female characters will do something that utterly contradicts the assertion. I think that he’s making fun of those assumptions at least as often as he’s buying into them. Of course, other people seem to feel differently, and I may well be wrong – but that type of stereotyping often seriously affects my enjoyment of a novel, and it didn’t bother me at all here.
In great news, this is in the public domain, so if you fancy giving it a go it’s available freely on Project Gutenberg (here): https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/33353. If you love a romcom, I think you’ll love this. Even if, like me, romcoms normally make you roll your eyes, you might enjoy this, especially if you like films like My Man Godfrey and His Girl Friday. If you do try it out, I’d love to hear what you think!