Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Room Opposite ~ F. M. Mayor

Flora Macdonald Mayor (1872-1932), the daughter of a clergyman, Rev. Joseph Bickersteth Mayor, read History at Newnham College, Cambridge, before pursuing an unsuccessful career in acting, which neither of her parents approved of. Her first published work, Mrs Hammond's Children, came out at the end of 1901, but it received little attention and didn't sell well. In 1913, her second book, The Third Miss Symons, an elaborate study of a spinster's life, was published with a preface by John Masefield, the future poet laureate. It received favourable reviews, and The New Statesman went so far as to compare her to Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell. The Daily Telegraph referred to Mayor as 'a true artist' and wrote: 'Without the slightest attempt to play upon the feelings, it reaches to the very heart of things, and leaves the reader with an aching sense of the intolerable waste of human nature' - an assessment that can also be applied to the non-supernatural tales in her posthumously published collection The Room Opposite. Her third book, The Rector's Daughter, published in 1924 by The Hogarth Press, was praised by E. M. Forster and received good reviews in the press, but like her earlier work did not sell terribly well. And the last work to be published during Mayor's lifetime, The Squire's Daughter, which came out three years before her death, received neither good sales nor glowing reviews. By the time of her death in 1932, Mayor's reputation had diminished so much that The Times refused to print an obituary for her.

The Room Opposite and Other Tales of Mystery and Imagination was published in 1935 by Longmans, Green & Co. It contains sixteen tales, ten of which are mysterious, supernatural, or fantastic. Of those, 'The Room Opposite', 'Fifteen Charlotte Street', 'The Kind Action of Mr. Robinson' and 'Miss de Mannering of Asham' are the best. I tend to leave out the non-supernatural tales when I do a write up, but in this case I'm going to make an exception and cover all sixteen.

In 'The Room Opposite', William Stanley is on his way to Cambridge to see an old college friend when he is caught in a snow-storm, loses his way, and winds up at One Tree Inn in the ugly village of Swinford. The room opposite his own is occupied by a man who, according to his two rather peculiar doctors, is at death's door, and throughout the night Stanley is disturbed by cries from the sickroom. His unease leads him to flee in the night, and an accident leaves him ill for several weeks following his departure, but he is haunted by the cries of that dying man... a stranger, yet so familiar.

In 'The Kind Action of Mr. Robinson', young Charles Marsden is waiting for a coach to London one December afternoon when he meets Mr Robinson, a man he has never met before, who offers to lend him five hundred pounds on the understanding that the debt must be paid back in fifty years' time, at the same time of day and in the same location. 'You need not trouble yourself with an I.O.U.,' explains the stranger, 'for I myself will remind you from time to time.' And remind him he does, once every ten years... until the repayment falls due.

'Letters from Manningfield' is an epistolary tale about Miss Corbett, an unmarried country vicar's daughter who, having nobody for company but her elderly parents, writes the details of her life in letters to her only friend, Hilda. She begins with descriptions of the village and its colourful population, but having discovered that Hilda likes ghostly things she begins visiting the local elderly poor to glean stories from them to pass on to her friend. She relays every detail when one of the locals reports seeing a fairy, but when she sees one herself the magical encounter leaves her feeling disenchanted and unhappy with her lot.

The comical 'Tales of Widow Weeks' is also set in the village of Manningfield and again involves Miss Corbett. Mr Laver is very good to his old aunt, Widow Weeks. But one day his wife says something unkind within the old lady's hearing, and that's when the trouble starts... because Widow Weeks knows spells and has 'sperrits'. I couldn't help wondering, when I first read this story, what on earth the pastime referred to as the 'wiggle-woggle' could be. Well, in case you are now wondering too, here it is...

In 'Fifteen Charlotte Street', James Dence has travelled from East Anglia to London in search of work. He is looking for an address and having no luck in finding it when Mr Morell offers assistance and, as it is late and pouring down with rain, offers him a room for the night at 15 Charlotte Street. Following supper, Morell declares that he is a doctor and that he is concerned by Dence's appearance. He proceeds to examine his guest, and then he whispers: 'You are now coming upstairs with me. What happens there is a secret, which no one must ever know.' Well, that's enough to put the wind up anyone, so Dence's desire to flee at this point is completely understandable. Of events that follow, Dence remembers little or nothing, until he wakes in a London hospital.

In 'The Unquiet Grave', Ellen Braithwaite is the daughter of a prosperous farmer. She fancies young Thorny, the son of a squire, but her father opposes their marriage. When another suitor attempts to molest Ellen, Thorny attacks and kills him, and he is forced to flee the country to escape the gallows. But Ellen swears she'll be true to him until he can return and marry her. And so she waits and pines, as two years pass with no word, until she falls ill and dies. But she'll never rest until she sees her love again.

'Christmas Night at Almira', like the five tales that follow it, has no supernatural element. It is set in the Almira boarding-house, where a group of women and one child are spending the Christmas holiday. It is a tale of the desperate loneliness of old age, when those you love have either abandoned you or died. In particular, it is about Millicent Gwynne, whose beloved son seldom visits her and can't wait to get away from her when he does.

'In the 'Bus' is a short tale about Rene West's stay in hospital. Though there's no weird element to it, the descriptions of the horrid nurses and doctors struck such a chord with me, bringing back memories of my own time in hospital several years back, that I felt quite uneasy after reading it.

'Mother and Daughter' is a poignant tale set in the Nookery boarding-house in Seagate, where the elderly inhabitants are made to feel like nothing but a collective nuisance by its unfeeling proprietress Mrs Pack. As with the elderly characters of 'Christmas Night at Almira', the inhabitants of the Nookery are unwanted, neglected and terribly lonely. Millicent Fairholme, still elegant at sixty-five, is rarely visited by her daughter Helen, who is too busy, too young, and too concerned with the here and now to spare time for her ageing mother, who for her is a remnant of a past she has no interest in. Helen comes to regret her unwillingness to bridge the divide between herself and her mother, but only when it is too late.

In 'Innocents' Day', four elderly friends are brought together to celebrate Christmas after not seeing each other for many years. Ethel Perrin, a teacher, lives alone with her books. Fanny Fleet, now the widow Mrs Bentley, married and had children, but the marriage didn't work and the children have all flown. Eleanor and Rosa Danvers did not marry, their father lost their fortune, and they live in a London boarding-house. All are lonely, but together they recapture something of the Christmases of their childhood together.

'A Season at the Sceptre' is about Violet Heron, otherwise known as Queen, who isn't really cut out for the rivalry and spite of theatre life. It's written in a very chatty style, as it's being told by an actress to her friend, and for me it is the least successful story of the collection.

'The Lounge at the Royal' is peopled by guests who are 'dull, elderly, or feminine, and usually all three'. A holiday romance has been blossoming between Rex Glen and Sylvia Paulet; he is preparing to propose marriage, and she's preparing to accept him. That is, until Miss Lilith Lasky arrives on the scene, with her motorbike and wide mouth of good teeth.

In 'The Dead Lady', on her deathbed Lady Wild asks her husband, Sir Harry, to bury her two rings with her when she is dead. On the back of her ruby ring, given her by Sir Harry on their wedding day, is engraved the motto: 'True love dost last for ever'. But does it? I'm saying no more, as I can't without spoiling things.

Margaret Latimer, the narrator of 'Miss de Mannering of Asham' is staying at an east coast resort with her friend Kate Ware. They decide to take a pony and cart out for a ride in the countryside and come across the park of Asham Hall, a Jacobean mansion that has passed from one hand to another since the de Mannering family died out. The hall, its park and Asham Church make both women feel uneasy, but Kate is determined to find out the story behind its one shut-up room... the story of Miss de Mannering, who was ill used by Captain Phillimore, a Wickham-like rake who wouldn't have been out of place in an Austen novel.

In "There Shall Be Light at Thy Death", old Mrs Bailey is very happy to have her great-nephew visit her, but his visit is motivated by want of money rather than love of the old lady. Desperate to get his hands on her cash to settle his gambling debts, he puts rat poison in his great-aunt's tea, but as she lies on her deathbed she fixes her eyes upon him and says: "There shall be light at thy death."

In 'Le Spectre de la Rose' it is 1821 and Lucy Davenant, a young beauty of sixteen, attends a fancy dress ball with her mother and father. While there, she meets a mysterious young man dressed in a rose-coloured doublet and is swept off her feet by him. Before leaving, he promises he will return, and it is assumed by Lucy's family that he will propose marriage, but the days pass, then weeks, then months, and they hear nothing of him. Other suitors propose, but Lucy is a changed girl, and despite the passage of time, and her failing health, her love for the rose-coloured gallant does not wane.

The Room Opposite is an extremely rare book. A nice copy with the dust jacket costs anything from twelve hundred pounds upwards these days, but they certainly don't come along very often. The collection has never been republished, and as far as I know only 'Miss De Mannering of Asham' and 'The Unquiet Grave' have been published elsewhere.