The Third Miss Symons – F.M. Mayor

And so here is the first review of the year and aptly it is for the first book read in 2013, even if I have got a small backlog of books to tell you about from last year. I have mentioned before that I am very superstitious about the first book of the year as it seems to me it will reflect, or predict, the reading experience that I will have in the year ahead. Odd I know, yet true. Aptly I have whim (my main reading resolution of 2013) to thank for my first read being F.M. Mayor’s ‘The Third Miss Symons’ as I had started a few books and not been quite taken with any of them. However on a trip to Shrewsbury last week I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop, bought it and then spent a few hours in a cafe not long after, while waiting for The Beard to finish a meeting, reading it from cover to cover – before you think I am some super reader it is only 144 pages of rather large print.

**** Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1913 (1980 edition), fiction, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Henrietta, or Etta, Symons is the ‘Third Miss Symons’ of the title and this book is really the tale of her life. As the third daughter, and fifth child, of seven she becomes the ‘middle child’, true at a yojng age she does have her time as everyone’s favourite, yet from then onwards she becomes a rather plain and unremarkable woman and we see how this unintentionally effects the rest of her life and her circumstances.

 It is also F.M. Mayors way of talking about a large amount of women who found themselves in a very similar situation at the end of the Victorian era leading into the suffragette movement. A group of women who seemed to somehow be out of kilter with the world though for no fault of their own, even if it might have made them bitter towards the ends of their lives. We still know some people like this I am sure, as youngsters I am sure we were all aware of a ‘local witch’ or ‘crazy cat lady’ somewhere down the road or in the area that we lived. Did we ever try and understand them? No, yet here in ‘The Third Miss Symons’ Flora MacDonald Mayor tries to do just that and explain it all in the life of Henrietta.

“It was clear she was to be lonely at school and lonely at home. Where was she to find relief? There was a supply of innocuous story-books for the perusal of Mrs. Marston’s pupils on Saturday half-holidays, innocuous, that is to say, but the fact that they gave a completely erroneous view of life, and from them Henrietta discovered that heroines after their sixteenth birthday are likely to be pestered with adorers. The heroines, it is true, were exquisitely beautiful, which Henrietta knew she was not, but form a study of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Villette’ in the holidays, Charlotte Bronte was forbidden at school owing to her excess of passion, Henrietta realized that the plain may e adored too, so she had a modest hope that when the magic season of young ladyhood arrived, a Prince Charming would come and fall in love with her. This hope filled more and more of her thoughts, and all her last term, when other girls were crying at the thought of leaving, she was counting her days to her departure.”

It is not the easiest of reads in part because Henrietta is going to be a victim of circumstance, you pretty much know this from the start, and also because she is never really that likeable mainly as the product of her situation. Often there is a tone to the novel which is rather melancholy, which made me wonder if was the reason for the fact it verges on a novella in terms of length. I should add here that I didn’t find the book depressing in itself, more the society of the time and how it treated women who did end up as spinsters and how this even reflected the way a family might choose to interact with one in their own midst. I make single women sound like lepers here but in some ways that is how families seemed to feel about them, unless of course they could be good for money or should the lady of the house day and a replacement be needed or someone to use for their own gains or motives as they got older, otherwise they were really seen rather as a burden.

“Her aunt’s life was the sweetest and happiest for old age, but could she at twenty settle down to devising treats for other people’s children, or sewing garments for the poor? It made her feel sick and dismal to think of it. Besides, there circumstances were not similar. Her aunt, fortified by the spirit of self-sacrifice, had resigned what she loved, but she had the reward of being the most necessary member of her circle. Henrietta had no scope for self-sacrifice, for she had never had anything to give up.”

I found ‘The Third Miss Symons’ an utterly fascinating and rather different read. Partly this was because of the insight into that period of British history and how women were treated, or ill treated, in that time and partly because of the character of Henrietta which Mayor has created. I am hard pushed to think of another female character I have encountered quite like her. I was thinking of Harriet in ‘Gillespie and I’, Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’ or Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ yet Harriet is not as unreliable, bitter, warped or feisty as any of them she is ordinary, yet that is what makes her tale all the more extraordinary. It’s an unusual perspective and an unusual read yet brilliantly so. I was also impressed with how Mayor wrote a whole life, and its ups and downs, in such a short book. If my reading year is to be filled with quirky, unusual and such vividly character filled and prose lead as this book then I am in for a very good reading year.

This shows the joys of whim reading, and turning to more golden oldies, instantly doesn’t it? I hope that the rest of my reading year carries on like this. Anyway, who else has read this book and what did you think? I know Susan Hill loves it as she wrote the introduction in my Virago edition, she is also a huge fan of F.M. Mayors ‘The Rectors Daughter’ which is somewhere in my TBR, have any of you read that one at all and if so what did you think of it?


Filed under F.M. Mayor, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

13 responses to “The Third Miss Symons – F.M. Mayor

  1. So pleased be reminded of Flora Mayor. I stumbled across her as well, in the shape of The Rector’s Daughter, a couple of years ago. I read that novel on holiday, lying under the sun on a Greek island and completely immersed in her world. When I finished the novel I went through a period of mourning… and couldn’t read anything else for a while.
    Definitely adding this to my TBR. Thanks.

    • Ooh that sounds really promising as a future read then Judith, thank you. It is lovely when you can remember exactly where your were when you read a book, whether it was a bad one or a good one 😉

  2. I can really recommend The Rector’s Daughter, though I haven’t read it for many years it’s one of those ones that sticks with you and I remember it fondly.

    • I have heard many, many people sing its praises and I will definitely have a read of it in the future, though now I have read this one I will have to wait a while. I wouldn’t want to get the two confused.

  3. Jill

    I just downloaded the ebook for free from This version is also available free from the Book Depository.

  4. I recognised that discontented woman from the cover immediately! I was on a very rainy holiday with my parents in their caravan a few years ago and we were all huddled up inside reading – dogs, parents, partner and me so a bit of a squish! – and my mum picked this off my bought books pile (we were near Hay-on-Wye so it was a huge pile) and read it all in one sitting like you did. She was absolutely captivated and so I expected her to wax lyrical when she was done, but instead she put it down, sighed and said ‘I think I’d rather have gone walking in the rain.’ She thought it was worse than depressing. Maybe the confines of the caravan made the confines of Miss Symons’ life seem even worse! Anyway, it has always put me off and it has sat unread on my shelf ever since. But perhaps I should give it a go.

    • Hahaha that is brilliant that you recognised it from the cover straight away, blimey it must have left an impression.

      I certainly wouldn’t call it worse than depressing, and having just read a brilliant book that was just that I would know at the moment, I would say its just very thought provoking. Slightly melancholic but deeply thought provoking.

      Give it a whirl.

  5. I read this and, like you, found it difficult because Etta is so very unlikable, and it is so very bleak. But Mayor did raise interesting questions about the way women (and children) were perceived in society, and in their own families, and relations between siblings, and between parents and children. I liked the way she wrote, her rather ironic, detached style, and how she portrayed her characters. It was one of those novels where I felt there was lots to admire, but I couldn’t quite like it, which made it difficult to review.

    The only work I’ve read which invites comparison is EM Delafield’s ‘Consequences’, which is set in a similar period, and has similar themes running through it, about alienation and never finding one’s place in life. Again, it looks at the role of women, and relationships within families, and charts the way an unloved girl grows into an unloved woman, and you can see how circumstances shaped her life and how, with just a little change, things could have been very different. It’s another grim, and rather difficult read, and you certainly couldn’t describe it as enjoyable, but I much preferred it to The Third Symons.

    • I wouldn’t say I found it difficult to read prose wise, more just because I felt sad for Etta, yes she was difficult herself but that didn’t make her difficult to read, sorry if I made it sound like that.

      I must read Consequences, a fair few people on Twitter compared the two, and said Delafield was better though I will go in with an open mind obviously. I find this slightly melancholy type of book makes me feel a lot better about my life and also makes me think about judging deeply miserable and difficult people… like my awful and rude homophobic neighbour downstairs 😉

      • I didn’t mean difficult to read prose-wise – I actually admired the way she wrote. It really was the emotional aspect I think, and the fact that Etta was so hard to like, and there seemed to be no hope of improvement for her. It’s probably very shallow of me, but I much prefer novels where I like the central character.

      • Yes, I completely agree with that. Sorry. I think I got confused there ha!

  6. Sally Sweeney

    Thank you!! Just finished The Third Miss Symons and I really enjoyed it. Would never have found it without you!

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