It was the title of this 1858 novel which attracted me. In the mid-nineteenth century Mayfair was an aristocratic residential district of London. The most expensive section on the British Monopoly board, it today contains some of the world’s most expensive real estate. The Morals of May Fair promises to lift the lid on the sins of Victorian high society.
And fortunately the book lives up to its promise. Although it begins in Brittany, where disillusioned young writer Philip Earnscliffe unexpectedly finds love with the beautiful Marguerite St John, most of the novel is set in London, where husband-hunting young women try to blag seats in boxes at the theatre, French counts declare love on moonlit balconies, and actresses entertain their lovers in mirror-lined boudoirs. The writing is excellent, atmospheric with Gothic touches for the scenes in Brittany, and later cynically observant of London society.
…Miss Georgy came down unexpectedly one fine day, to see “dear Marguerite;” – prepared, as she said, to forgive and forget everything, and have a long, friendly morning together.
The standing commencement of these “mornings” of female affection being for one friend to say something mortifying to the other, Miss de Burgh had opened proceedings by commenting very plainly upon her young relative’s ill looks.
Georgy de Burgh is a ferociously determined social climber – just the sort of girl for whom this kind of book was written, incidentally – and a fabulous character. If only I could say the same for Philip and Marguerite. Philip is lacking in moral courage and wedded to the double standard (at one point he complains that neither his wife nor his mistress are showing him any loyalty). Marguerite falls victim to the Victorian fetishisation of female ignorance and inexperience – euphemistically referred to as “innocence” – and the author never really allows her to come alive. In the first chapter we’re told that:
She was a young girl of scarcely sixteen, and a countenance of more perfect, and almost infantine sweetness, it would be difficult to conceive…As it had never entered into her head, or that of her father, that she was approaching the age of womanhood, she was still dressed like a mere child, in a little muslin frock, without any ornament of lace or ruffle, and so short in the skirts as to allow a full view of her tiny feet in their well-worn house slippers.
Sixteen and it’s never entered her head that she is approaching the age of womanhood? She must still be awaiting the onset of menstruation – which makes it seem all the more icky when Philip (who is in his twenties) turns up at the gate of her father’s chateau, dripping wet, in the middle of a stormy night, falls instantly in love and starts romancing her. The reader knows Philip is married. Marguerite doesn’t. This would be bad enough behaviour today, but was far worse in the Victorian era when a woman’s good reputation was of paramount importance and even the fact of her having been in love before might be enough for a potential suitor to reject her. At this point I was getting sympathetic to Marguerite, but then she ruined it all. Idiotically, she gets caught by the tide (during another storm) when she takes Philip to see a local grotto. She’s lived in the area her entire life and knows the spot well, yet this is her response when Philip, who thinks it’s a good idea to wait out the storm in the grotto, mentions that the tide is rising:
“The tide!” repeated Marguerite. “Is the tide rising?”
“I should think it was halfway in; see, it has surrounded yonder black rock, which seemed a mile from the sea when we first looked out. But we have plenty of time.”
“We have not!” cried Marguerite, seizing his hand, while her own grew cold and damp with sudden terror. “The gabarier told me not to remain in the grotto one moment after the tide had turned, and it is already halfway in.”
“Child, you should have told me sooner,” was Philip’s calm reply.
As contrived as the situation is, it has to be said that this is one of the most exciting scenes of the novel. As Philip and Marguerite, facing death in each other’s arms, feel freed to confess the truth to each other, it’s also a neat way of moving the plot forward without making Marguerite into the sort of girl who would chase a married man.
The Morals of May Fair is very much of its time. Like many midcentury novels, it feels padded, due to the pressure on authors to produce a work which would fill three volumes. The circulating libraries were the main buyers of books in this period and they rented out one volume at a time, thus a work in three volumes maximised their profit and became the industry standard. (I read an undated one-volume edition which, interestingly, has a summary of the action on every other page, for example: “Proof of Rose’s Treachery”, “The Last Meeting”, “The Old Passion Recalled.”) In this case the padding takes the form of an subplot around the mysterious history of one of Philip’s actress friends. As it bears no relation to the main plot, in essence it continues the eighteenth-century tradition of breaking up the main narrative to tell the life stories of various characters despite this doing nothing whatsoever to forward the action. There’s also some heavy foreshadowing and some anti-spoilers – i.e. pieces of information that the reader should have had earlier, but didn’t. (Like the existence of Marguerite’s Secret Diary).
The libraries took a dim view of any subject matter considered unsuitable for female perusal, and were especially concerned to protect the
cluelessness innocence of young girls. This presents Edwards with somewhat of a problem in the latter half of the book: how to get a heroine in love with a married man past the censor. Her solution is to continue insisting on Marguerite’s “holy innocence” and childlike nature. As Marguerite is now a society beauty with half the men in London at her feet, this seems more than a bit ridiculous and has the effect of negating the character development she does experience. However, Edwards makes it clear that a bit more worldly wisdom would have been helpful to Marguerite, so perhaps she was trying some stealthy subversion here.
The final section of the book is set firmly in 1851, with references to the Great Exhibition and the advent of the Second Empire in France. But it’s the small details which bring to life an age when almost anything someone bought, said or did was a class marker.
…The ballet terminated in a flood of rose-light, and he was reminded that it was long past midnight. Of course, now that all attraction was over, Philip at once prepared to be off; and he was attempting to pass quickly through the crowd, when in the lobby one of his friends approached, and shaking Earnscliffe’s hand, gave him a little, delicately-folded pink note.
“In your old luck, Phil!” he whispered. “Upon my word, it is rather soon for a bridegroom to receive such wicked-looking missives.”
The note is from an actress friend, and Philip’s actress mistress is similarly described as using “little pink-coloured notes”. By contrast, in a later scene, blue writing paper is enough for Philip to place his correspondent socially and condemn him at the same time:
Danby’s hand was a clear, round text; the paper he employed blue letter sheet; and the appearance of the whole epistle unlike any Philip had ever received in his life, with the exception of duns or communications from his bookseller.
Philip’s own writing is described as “bold, clear”, so it seems to be the roundness which is particularly offensive.
The Morals of May Fair was written at a crossroads of literary traditions. The influence of the silver fork novels which became fashionable in the 1820s is clear from the title and the London setting. From the eighteenth century it inherits storms, Gothic chateaux and ruined chapels, the story-within-a-story tradition, plus some tropes which Jane Austen had mocked in Northanger Abbey (Marguerite is a heroine who never reads novels and who sings as well as a professional despite being completely untaught). But although the book deals with an ingenue coming out into society, Marguerite has a lot more to deal with than the linear progression towards a love match of an Austen or Burney heroine. The theme of adulterous love looks forward to the sensation novels which were to be so hugely popular in the 1860s. While not as complex as Lady Audley’s Secret or The Woman in White, The Morals of May Fair is an excellent story well worth seeking out by anyone who enjoys Victorian popular fiction.
I borrowed The Morals of May Fair from the library.