JOINT REVIEW: Once a Fallen Lady by Eve Pendle
Because it sounded interesting to both of us, Jayne and I decided to review Eve Pendle’s new long novella / short novel, Once a Fallen Lady, together. — Janine
Janine: Although I had some caveats about it, I enjoyed Eve Pendle’s novel, Falling for a Rake. Oscar, the hero of that book had been a true rake in his past; he had “ruined” a young woman, gotten her pregnant, and refused to marry her or to be a father to his child. Once a Fallen Lady is the story of Lydia, the woman Oscar ruined. At 180 pages, it’s either a short novel or a long novella. It takes place in the English village of Elmswell, Sussex, in 1875.
Jayne: Since I hadn’t read the first book, I had no idea who Oscar was, if he would be in this story or how he would be portrayed if he did appear. I actually liked it this way as I could concentrate on our heroine Lydia and bask in my anger at how she’d been treated by this ass in her past.
Janine: For the sake of her daughter and herself, Lydia masquerades as a widow under the false surname of Taylor. Her landlord’s land agent charges her exorbitant rent, so when Lydia’s daughter, Annie, falls ill with polio, Lydia cannot even afford a doctor. It’s a good thing that Alfred Lowe, Annie’s schoolteacher, applies the Elmswell Children’s Society for aid. Alfred and Lydia have been attracted to one another from afar, but Lydia’s ruination has left her wary, while Alfred feels he doesn’t have much to offer, since he can’t easily provide for a wife and child.
Jayne: These societies were a “thing” in Victorian England, right?
Janine: Yes. There were all kinds of fundraising efforts for the poor from village coal and clothing clubs to city charity houses where teenage girls could be taught a profession such as dressmaking.
Lydia and Alfred’s shared worry over Annie’s illness brings them closer, though. Throughout Annie’s illness, Alfred calls on Lydia and Annie bearing small gifts. A doll, a book or two, sweets to tempt Annie into eating—and to show Lydia how much he cares. But can Lydia trust Alfred with her secret? And what will happen after Annie’s sickness passes?
I liked Lydia and Alfred. I liked that they were both from a middle-class background rather than aristocrats. I liked that they were both sensitive to each other’s needs. And I liked the way they offered one another their support.
Alfred was such a good and honorable man. I was reminded a bit of William Holyoake in Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy because Alfred was so kind and so steady, while still passionately carrying a torch for Lydia underneath his solid, dependable surface. I liked that teaching school was his profession; it suited him so well.
I appreciated what a good mother Lydia was, how dedicated she was to Annie, how hard she tried to provide for her daughter even when the roof was leaking and the chicken coop was in need of cleaning. She was a single mom doing the best she could for a child with a deadbeat father, and how often do we see that in real life? This aspect of her portrayal felt true to life.
Another thing that added authenticity to Lydia’s characterization was the way she viewed her story as something out of a morality tale. I appreciated the way this situated her firmly in the Victorian era. The notion that women’s transgressions (especially sexual ones) would be punished was a facet of Victorian culture that it would have been hard not to absorb. The female protagonist who pursues a forbidden relationship ends up dead in in so many nineteenth century novels. Lydia felt that she was to blame for Annie’s illness and was being punished for having transgressed.
Jayne: Agreed. I really liked how Lydia viewed her past in terms of a set of three pennies prints – I would assume something like the previous century’s Hogarth prints – that would show the seduction and ruin of a young woman of good moral character and the awful fate that would follow this.
Janine: Yes, that was great. And it made it all the more satisfying to see her learn, slowly, from Alfred and from her own affinity for him, that this was not the case—that Annie’s illness had nothing to do with her past and that she deserved love and good fortune, not ostracism or punishment. This particular arc for a fallen woman isn’t something I have seen portrayed much in historical romance (surprising when I stop to think about it given how prevalent such attitudes were in the 19th century). Moreover, I liked the way Lydia eventually learns to take a risk or two for Alfred, despite her caution.
Another character I liked was Caroline, Miss Streeting, the daughter of Lydia’s landlord, Sir Thomas. Sir Thomas and Caroline were both dark-skinned (yay for diversity) and Caroline stood up for herself when it came to taking on an unconventional role for a woman. I hope she gets her own book.
Jayne: It would be nice to see Caroline taking charge of what she takes charge of. I loved the source of Sir Thomas’s wealth and remember watching a documentary on 19th century chemistry that outlined how the Germans and British were both trying to develop chemical fertilizers to replace the guano that was being shipped from around the world. Imagine working on one of those ships.
Janine: Great point. And whereas some historical romances are built on the premise that ruin is a good solution to an unwanted marriage, this book shows just how bad an idea it would have been for a woman to set out to be ruined in the 1800s.
To be clear, Lydia did no such thing—she set her cap for an earl; he happened to be a rake and after taking her virginity, refused to marry her even when she became pregnant. But the novel showed just how damaging such a past could be. Lydia had to contend with more than abandonment by her child’s father and single motherhood, two enormous things by themselves. She was also cast out of her family and had to maintain constant vigilance over her reputation in her new community. She was justifiably terrified of being shunned and censured if the truth ever came out.
I noticed one instance of anachronistic language (“conned” from 1896), and one factual inaccuracy. When Alfred attributed “all men are created equal” to the Bible, I was thinking no, no, no—that’s the Declaration of Independence! But I didn’t mind these as much as I might have in a novel predicated on a different concept. This book was true to the attitudes of the 1870s in ways that felt genuine and refreshing.
Jayne: I noticed a few more. “Who was she kidding?” and “posh” (murky origins but first found in print in 1914). There were a few more that I didn’t bother to bookmark.
Janine: I noted “Who was she kidding?” as well, but when I looked it up on the OED, the verb “kid” as in to “deceive” dates from 1811. The phrasing sounds new but the sentence structure is so simple that I can buy a character saying it in the 1875. It jarred me enough that I looked it up, though, so it wasn’t the best choice.
Lydia and Alfred’s approach to attraction and sex also fit the time period. Lydia was understandably (given her past) wary of attractive men. And she saw herself as tainted, as someone who could only drag Alfred and herself into the mud. She also feared that any involvement with him would reveal the truth about her to the villagers. And she fully expected Alfred to reject her and even find her repugnant if he ever learned that her daughter was born out of wedlock.
Jayne: At first when Alfred started to visit Lydia’s household, I thought the neighbors would just think it was the teacher checking up on Annie. As it continued though, I couldn’t help but begin to think that they’d start to wonder what was going on. The whole “this is not a courtship” thing was ridiculous for Lydia to insist on as she would probably have been thought worse of if people hadn’t thought Alfred was courting her.
Janine: Great point. I felt the neighbors had to know something was up, too.
Alfred never judged her and that was a big part of what made him heroic. But he had internalized Victorian attitudes in a different way — he felt guilty when he got himself off while thinking of Lydia. I thought it was interesting, too, that Alfred didn’t believe in God. This would have made him stand out had it been known because religion was a dominant part of Victorian life. But just as interestingly, despite his atheism he had still absorbed, to a certain degree, the shame with which religion colored masturbation. That was totally believable to me; it’s very difficult not to absorb some of the attitudes of the predominant culture even while rejecting others. Society and its attitudes carry so much power.
Jayne: But was Alfred an atheist? I thought he was just angry at the way the Church authorities and the teachers working for them at the school where Alfred had taught were treating children: caning them instead of using other methods to discipline and teach. He says he’d rather believe in no god than in a god that allowed this. But even then I really didn’t get the feeling that he was totally renouncing religion.
Janine: No, at one point he also thinks “If he could pray to a god he didn’t believe in, he would have done so then.” Between that statement and the one you mentioned earlier, his easy embracing of Lydia and Annie, and his desire to make his dream school open to people of all beliefs, I did think he was atheist or at the very least agnostic.
Jayne: Okay, I can go with agnostic. As to Alfred never judging her – well, yes, it’s nice but when I finished the story I couldn’t help but feel Alfred was a bit too perfect. He never looked down on Lydia for what she did or on Annie for being illegitimate. He freely spent money on not just survival food but on chocolates and other candies as well as shelling out for several new books for Lydia and Annie despite it being brought up more than once that his salary was low. Then he is thrilled that Lydia lays a kiss on him and goes on to sexually pleasure Lydia. His views on education are enlightened and he feels protective of Lydia and Annie in the face of who comes to see them. Did he have any flaws? At all?
Janine: I didn’t view him that way. The not judging fit with his atheism. And I looked at his inability to provide well for Annie and Lydia (or even to pay for the doctor himself) as a flaw (or at least, a reason he might not be husband material). Given that this was the case, I even looked at all the gift-buying that way. I kept thinking “fewer gifts, you should be saving up for marriage.” There was also the fact that he was significantly lower on the social rung than the family Lydia had come from. And he lied to Sir Thomas—to protect Lydia, true, but the consequences of that lie came as an unwelcome shock to Lydia. So he didn’t seem too perfect to me.
Thankfully, Alfred’s squeamishness did not extend in any way toward pleasuring Lydia. I was a little surprised, as Alfred was a virgin, at his knowledge in this arena. Later it’s explained that he had read about sex in books. I could easily picture him seeking out information about it (although maybe not in the recent years while boarding at the rectory). I did think, though, that the physical location of the oral sex scene was iffy since Alfred and Lydia could have easily been caught. Of course, they couldn’t have found any privacy in Lydia’s small house while Annie and Elizabeth (a nurse sent by Lydia’s sister) were there, and oral sex at the rectory was even more unthinkable. I still bounced off of it, though.
Jayne: Yes to all of this. When Alfred casually asks to orally pleasure Lydia I remembered back to when it was indicated that he’s a virgin and thought “Whoa dude. How do you know about this.” But then the book reading was mentioned and as he’s a teacher who seeks out knowledge, it made more sense. He must have studied those books a lot because wow, he’s good for a beginner.
I also kept thinking of the fact that Lydia lived in a small, somewhat shabby house and how it had been described as a place where sound carried. They were lucky not to be caught out regardless of how much or little noise they made. Of course, the only other practical place for them to go was the chicken coop and wouldn’t that have killed the mood? Somehow, I doubt Alfred would have done as well with Mail Coach watching over his shoulder.
Janine: LOL! Since it said, “She didn’t cry out when he tipped her over, but he knew,” I was able to gloss over their dialogue by assuming they were being quiet.
Jayne: And remember back to the scene of Alfred masturbating at the rectory in his room. After he ejaculates into the sheets, I kept thinking, “Ewwww. The maid is going to notice that when she launders those!”
Janine: Yeah, that’s fair. I felt sorry for the maid, too. That kind of thing must have happened to a lot of maids, if you stop to think about it, but it punctured my ability to view it as romantic or even sexy.
There was something else I also found jarring early on—the focus on the attraction while Lydia’s child was so ill with polio. It seemed like the kind of thing that would be sidelined until Annie got well. Lydia needed a brief escape from the constant fear, a small breather of focusing on something else, but I wish that this motivation had been hit a little more strongly and earlier on. There would have been no book without it, but the attraction still struck a jarring note.
Jayne: I felt that Lydia was very attentive to her daughter and beyond surface attraction or feelings of gratitude for the presents Alfred brought, she didn’t act on that early on. It seemed to me that it wasn’t until Annie had started to improve that Lydia plastered herself all over Alfred and kissed him like the plane was going down.
Janine: You’re right, she was very attentive to Annie. It’s more that she still noticed how attractive he was.
Janine:It would be remiss of me not to mention that I noticed only one copyediting error, a huge improvement over Falling for a Rake. And I even learned a couple of Briticisms I was unaware of: vazey (Victorian slang for stupid, according the author’s note) and chunter (Per the OED, “To mutter, murmur; to grumble, find fault, complain”).
You’ve talked me into giving the book a C grade. I still think the author has potential, though. What about you, Jayne?
Jayne: I give it a C/C-.
The issue of what the maid would notice on the sheets is actually discussed in Graham Swift’s “Mothering Sunday”. The protagonist is a foundling raised in an orphanage who was sent out to be in service in early 20th C England. The book opens when she is 22 and having an affair with the son of a local landowner. She thinks about what the maid in his household will think, but she knows that evidence of the sex will be seen, even if not commented on. BTW, it’s a good book but not what I think of as Romance, even if it is described as such on the cover.
@Susan/DC: Interesting. I think about the maids and the sheets even when reading scenes of intercourse and not just masturbation scenes. And I think that must happen to a lot of hotel maids and laundry room workers these days, too. I remember reading somewhere (either in an interview or in his part-reading-manual, part-memoir, On Writing) that Stephen King used to work in a hotel laundry facility before he started making enough money to live on from writing. He indicated that you find some horrifying things in the sheets when that is your job.