One of the highlights of my year has been being on the mailing list for the British Library Women Writers series, an excellent set of reprints of 20th century novels, each with accompanying information. I was on the blog tour for “The Love Child” and this one, which arrived with it, has been my last full read of 2021 (I don’t like to leave a year untidily but won’t finish my current read today).

Winifred Boggs – “Sally on the Rocks”

(13 October 2021)

“It will be a close thing. You have the wit and beauty, but I am safe and domestic and have been through the mill, nicely broken in. You look as if nothing could either bend or break you … ” (p. 144)

As you open this book, poignantly both set and published during the early years of the First World War, it seems quite traditional, slightly older in its writing style, settling down to a good story of English village life. We have characters building up, the clergyman with his wayward ward, the village gossip, the man of importance but an over-indulged sense of his own importance, the widow trying to catch a husband, the old lady in the manor house controlling people through what she gives out in her will. But very swiftly it turns into a strongly feminist message which gives it a delightful twist. Because while Sally and her rival, Mrs Dalton are supposed to be just that, rivals, they quickly form a friendship based on an honest appraisal of how much they both need to marry a rich man, and the different attributes they bring to the contest.

There’s also a strong critique of the way people’s pasts are allowed to affect their futures differently according to their gender. Without giving the plot away, hopefully, Sally has come from rackety stock, but was carefully raised by her guardian and his wife; but rackety will come through if encouraged and she has something Not Quite Nice in her past which is likely to come back and bite her. The man involved, not so much, and this is made very plain. The plight of women who are not allowed to earn their own decent living is also emphasised – even the horrible Miss Maggie, who uses her sleuthing abilities to cause real harm, is almost excused with the idea that she could have been a really first-rate professional had she had the opportunity, and there are some acerbic comments about women’s ageing and its effect on their prospects:

“The ‘getting on’ stage is the most trying, don’t you think? After you are past it, well, people leave you alone; but till you are, you MUST keep on struggling. (p. 10)

There’s also a strong critique of attitudes to the war, with Mr Bingley coming under heavy criticism for finding its privations personally tedious, but giving £10 to charity, and thinking it would be terrible to go to the Front lying, having pretended to be younger than one is (I cheered when I read in the accompanying matter that the age of conscription is raised just after the book ends, even if he is a fictional character!).

I think the author also works to undermine a few of the tropes of the literary time – there are a couple of characters who very handily come into money, and one certainly seems to have a habit of fortuitously losing relatives and gaining their money. Although there are a few struggling souls and the general point of the book, about women being unable to support themselves and relying on their ability to marry, is a bit dour, there’s lots of lightness and fun in the book, including sections narrated by the interior monologue of a dog and a cockerel, as well, as well as a good wellspring of capability and practicality which I really liked.

As is usual with these volumes, there is a timeline of the 1910s, a piece about the author and a perceptive Preface, as well as an Afterword at the back, which outlines the development of women’s professions as well as talking about the book in particular.

Thank you so much to the British Library for sending me this book and others in the series in return for an honest review. You can buy all the British Library Women Writers books (and more) at the British Library Shop (