Best Book of the Week!
Red Pottage is another find for me this year of a novel by a terrific classic author. I can include Mrs. Oliphant, Dorothy Whipple, and Julia Strachey in this list of classic authors I have not read before that I really enjoyed. My Doughty Library edition says the novel contains “every ingredient for a Victorian bestseller” and mentions wickedness and greed.
Hugh Scarlett has been having an affair with a married woman, Lady Newhaven. At first he thought he was in love with her, but now he has recognized her for who she is—a shallow and stupid beauty. He has already decided to break with her when he meets Rachel West at a party. At one glance he decides that Rachel is the woman to make a better man of him.
Rachel has also attracted the attention of Dick Vernon, a wine grower from Australia who is visiting his friends and family. Rachel likes him, but she is thinking of others.
Rachel has an unhappy past. Once the daughter of a wealthy man, she lost her fortune with her father’s death. For seven years she struggled to support herself, living in London’s East End and working as a typist. At that time, she fell deeply in love with an artist, Mr. Tristram, and was devastated when she realized he had no intention of marrying her. At the beginning of the novel, she has inherited another fortune and still believes herself in love with Mr. Tristram. Now that she has a fortune, though, she is looking like a much better prospect to him.
Another important character is Hester Gresley, an author who has been Rachel’s friend since childhood. Although Hester is better born than Rachel, her fortunes have suffered as Rachel’s have improved. She lives with her brother James, a rector who disregards her talent as a novelist and can only see his own point of view. James’s wife is jealous of Hester, and the children lovable but noisy. Hester finds herself unable to work during the daytime, so she stays up into the morning working, only to be accused by her sister-in-law of laziness.
Red Pottage is a story about morals and manners. That sounds boring, but it is quite satirical at times, while at other times it brought me to tears. The central conflict begins shortly after Hugh meets Rachel, when Lord Newhaven confronts him about Hugh’s affair with his wife. He makes Hugh a challenge, that they draw “lighters” (matches? straws?) and whoever draws the short one must take his own life within four months.
To complicate matters, Lady Newhaven eavesdrops on this conversation but does not learn who drew the short lighter. Then foolish, self-centered Lady Newhaven confides in Rachel, along with her assumption that if her husband dies, she will marry Hugh.
The story turned out just about how I thought it would, but I found the journey completely gripping. Another success from my Classics Club list!