28 July 2020

An Obstinate Virgin Turns Old-Fashioned Girl



The Obstinate Virgin
Sinclair Murray [Alan Sullivan]
London: Sampson Low, Marston [1934]
314 pages

In Essentially Canadian, his 1982 biography of Alan Sullivan, Gordon D. McLeod dismisses The Obstinate Virgin in two sentences:
The most devastating word applied to some of Sullivan's fiction is "ephemeral." It accurately describes The Obstinate Virgin, the only novel published by Sullivan in 1934.
And so, of course, I turned to The Obstinate Virgin as the next title in my exploration of things Sullivan.

The titular virgin is Mary Hellmuth, twenty-one-year-old step-daughter to Mr Henry Bentick, late of Kent. Step-dad is dead. His demise, quite recent, quite unexpected, must surely came as a shock, though no tears are in evidence. Mary's mother – known only as "Mrs Bentick" – had remarried for money, which is not to suggest that Mr Bentick wasn't most kind and considerate. "I wanted the right sort of home for you," she tells her daughter. "I don't complain about the last four years in any way at all, and you shouldn't either." "I'm not," replies Mary, "but naturally just at the moment I can't pretend to be overcome with grief, and equally naturally, I'm looking ahead."

This exchange takes place on the train to London, where they meet with family solicitor Mr Spillsbury of Spillsbury, Burkonshaw and Clewes. Mrs Bentick's expectation is that has inherited an annuity of £5000, the same amount enjoyed by her late husband. It is the solicitor's sad duty to inform that with Mr Bentick's death the entitlement has been transferred to another; the widow can expect no more than an annual payment of £250 drawn from investments made on her late husband's life insurance. This unpleasant news is coupled with the revelation that the grand Bentick house and estate were leased. Of a sudden, mother and daughter are without a home.


Mary takes the news much better than Mrs Bentick; where the daughter is disappointed in having to give up her dreams of a carefree life in London, the mother suffers the horror of having married for money that never existed. Sullivan shows kindness in not passing judgment on either woman.

Mrs Bentick retreats to a modest rooms in Bayswater, demonstrating little concern regarding the daughter for whom (she claims) she had (in part) married Mr Bentick.

Mary's initial searches for steady employment are not at all successful. However, fortunes turn – or do they? – when she responds to an advert placed by Mrs Hathaway, a middle-aged American woman in need of a secretary. It soon becomes clear that the obstinate virgin is hired for looks alone.

But why?

The location shifts to Monte Carlo, where it becomes clear that Mrs Hathaway hopes Mary's beauty might lure Hugo, her mentally unstable son, away from femme fatale Tonia Moore. Looking on is plain American girl Ann Mason who, being incredibly rich, has followed him across the Atlantic.

Monte Carlo, 1934
Mrs Hathaway holds slim hope that Ann might capture her son, though it's hard to see that there's much of a chance when compared to Tonia, "a sinuous, graceful, provocative creature who, when she moved, seemed to have no bones." Mrs Hathaway encourages Mary to chase Hugo, all the while making it clear that that she'd prefer wealthy Ann as a daughter-in-law:
"I've always been fond of her, and she's a fine girl, but she doesn't make any effort to attract, just thinks that it's enough to be natural. She was always like that. Of course, if you're a born beauty" – here she shot a different kind of glance at Mary – "no special effort is necessary, but believe me in Ann's case it is." 
Ouch.

Hugo never gives Mary so much as a second glance, though she does attract considerable attention from lively Italian Conte Guino Rivaldo and a rather serious Englishman named James Brock. The former can really cut a rug, and is recognized by all as Mrs Hathaway's gigolo (though no one suggests that they are lovers). Brock, who appears out of nowhere, somehow manages to attach himself to the group, despite being a right killjoy. As Guino woos the young virgin, Brock pooh-poohs her gambling, criticizes her use of make-up, advises her against swimming in cold water, and discourages her budding friendship with a certain Mme Gagnon. Within two weeks of arriving in Monte Carlo – and with considerable excitement – Mary accepts a proposal of marriage from one of these two men.

No points for correctly guessing which.

As a young woman who had expected an inheritance, had received nothing, and is left to make her own way, Mary Hellmuth is a familiar character. Her predicament is mirrored in Grant Allen's Juliet
Appleton (The Typewriter Girl; 1897) and Lois Cayley (Miss Cayley's Adventures; 1900), but Mary lacks their smarts and enterprise. She's more like the orphaned Monica Madden in George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893): a not-so-bright girl whose beauty tempts disaster. In short, Mary is a Victorian heroine moving through a Depression era novel. Reading The Obstinate Virgin, I kept having to remind myself that it was published the same year as Tender is the Night and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is so old-fashioned that the passing of an automobile seems incongruous. Mention of a commercial aeroplane flight in the final pages was positively jarring.

This being 1934, Mary being twenty-one, I'll accept that she is a virgin – but obstinate? Mary, a free-spirit, is open to anything, which explains how she gets along with everyone, save spoilsport James Brock.

The last chapter is rushed. Should anything be made of the fact that the page count of The Obstinate Virgin and is nearly identical to that of What Fools Men Are!, Sullivan's previous novel for Samson Low, Marston?

Mary, loses all her money at the roulette table, and goes into debt to Mme Gagnon... who, it turns out, is a white slave trader. Just as she's about to whisk Mary off to Paris, with the promise of a position in a fashion house, the madame is arrested.

No points for naming the person who tipped off the police.

No points, either, for the naming the person who ends up saving Mary from drowning.

A half-point for naming the woman who is revealed as Guino's estranged wife.

As everything goes south, Mary flees north to London. Arriving at Victoria Station, she encounters Brock: "'Hallo!' said he, "'better come with me and have a cup of tea: you look a bit washed out.'"

In the nine remaining pages, Brock explains his motivation in being in Monte Carlo, justifies his actions in the principality, and insists they be married:
Already he was arranging everything for her and she had the complete conviction that he always would, and could see him standing on the hearth after dinner planning the day to come, but for some strange reason instead of vexing it now made her thankful. That practically, was all she knew about him; he would always arrange things, and she, just as regularly, would be glad he should.
As I've more than hinted, Mary is none too smart.


Bloomer: In speaking of Ann's devotion to her son Hugo, Mrs Hathaway has this to say:
"Why she still loves him – frankly, I don't know – but she does just the same. He's queer. Sometimes I think he's frightened of women."
Trivia I: The Bank of England informs that £5000 in 1934 is the equivalent of over £360,500 today. Mrs Bentick's more modest annuity of £250 amounts to something more than £18,000.

Don't know about you, but I'd be pleased as Punch with that kind of money.

Trivia II: Is it not interesting that Gordon D. McLeod describes The Obstinate Virgin as "the only novel published by Sullivan in 1934"?

The only novel? Should we have expected more?

Well, yes.

Between 1925 and 1933, Sullivan published an average of nearly three novels a year:
1925
The Crucible
The Jade God
John Frensham, K.C. 
1926
Human Clay
The Days of Their Youth
In the Beginning 
1927
Brother Blackfoot
The Splendid Silence
The Verdict of the Sea
The Whispering Lodge 
1929
The Broken Marriage
Double Lives
The Story of One-Ear
The Training of Chiliqui 
1930
A Little Way Ahead
The Magic Makers
Mr. Absalom
Queer Partners 
1931
Golden Foundling
The Ironmaster
No Secrets Island 
1932
Antidote
Colonel Pluckett
Cornish Interlude 
1933
Man at Lane Tree
What Fools Men Are!
I wonder what happened in 1928. McLeod provides no explanation.

Between 1934 and his death in 1947, Sullivan appears to have relaxed, publishing seven novels, one collection of short stories, and a translation of Félix-Antoine Savard's Menaud maître-draveur.

Object: An unremarkable hardcover, identical in design to Sullivan's What Fools Men Are! (1933). The novel itself is followed by eight pages of advertising for the publisher's "POPULAR CHEAP EDITIONS," consisting chiefly of titles by Jeffrey Farnol, E.C.R. Lora, Leonard A. Knight, Moray Dalton, Silas K. Hocking, Richard Starr, Henry St John Cooper, Donn Byrne, and Faith Baldwin. My copy lacks the dust jacket, but within its pages, I found what may be the rear flap. It appears to have been used as a bookmark.

Anyway, I used it for that purpose.

Access: If WorldCat is an indication, no Canadian library has a copy; the only copies it lists are held in the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and Dublin's Trinity College Library.

As of this writing, just one copy, a later Sampson Low sixpenny paperback with paper cover (below), is being offered online. At £9.90, it's a steal. Heads up, Library and Archives Canada!


Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment