#BookReview Latchkey Ladies by Marjorie Grant

Latchkey LadiesAbout the Book

Maquita Gilroy is a Government clerk with a lively sense of self-preservation.

Anne Carey is drifting between jobs, bored of her fiancé, and longing for something to give her life meaning. Then she meets Philip Dampier, a married man whose plays she admires.

Petunia Garry, a beautiful teenage chorus girl with no background and dubious morals, is swept up by an idealistic soldier, who is determined to mould her into what he wants his wife to be.

Gertrude Denby, an Admiral’s daughter and an endlessly patient companion to an irritating employer, is so very tired of living out her life in hired rooms.

These latchkey ladies live alone or in shared rooms in London at the end of the First World War. They are determined to use their new freedoms, but they tread a fine between independence and disaster.

Format: Paperback (302 pages)      Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 15th March 2022 Genre: Modern Classics

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My Review

Latchkey Ladies, first published in 1921, is the latest title in Handheld Press’s Handheld Classic series. It has a fascinating introduction by Sarah LeFanu.

Although the latchkey ladies of the title may have ‘a room of their own’, they do not own that room and, although they may be living an independent life that is likely out of necessity rather than choice. Furthermore there remain constraints on what they can do or can be seen to do.  Some of the characters, namely Maquita Gilroy and, in a more extreme fashion, Petunia Garry, push at these boundaries. Although other characters flit in and out of the book, Anne Carey’s story is the main focus of the book.

When first introduced to the reader, Anne is at ‘breaking point without knowing it’. She’s working long hours in a role she regards as ‘trivial and silly to a degree’ (there are echoes of the Circumlocution Office of Dickens’s Little Dorrit in the tasks her department carries out). Food is scarce or unnutritious and there is anxiety about the progress of the war. The atmosphere of wartime London is skilfully evoked. ‘The darkness of the street, the lamps few and dimmed by green paint… the taxis with their blurred lights, the cavernous, lumbering drays and unlit buses were vehicles of mystery.’  Indeed, one episode in the book (in the chapter entitled ‘Searchlights’) depicting a German bombing raid on London is chillingly reminiscent of scenes we are witnessing currently on the nightly news. ‘There was nothing to be done but sit through it, and in a moment it seemed the faint distant booming gathered force as the nearer guns came into action, and the night was filled with a continuous crash of fire that shook the street and made windows and tables rattle.’

I’ll freely admit that I found Anne difficult to like at times possibly because the author gives us such a unflinching insight into her seemingly perpetual mental turmoil and frequent periods of low mood. Anne finds it difficult to decide what she really wants – security or ‘excitement’ – often shifting from one position to another and back again.  I really found it difficult to forgive her treatment of her fiancé, Thomas, which if not exactly cruel comes pretty close to it.  However, there were things I admired about her such as her occasional bursts of defiance and the affection she shows for her pupils when she takes up a position at her aunt’s school. The pen portraits of the pupils are quite charming, especially in the chapter ‘Poetry Day’.

Although at times Anne demonstrates a zest for life, she seems overwhelmed by the conviction that this will entail testing herself. ‘Life called to her. She had unending curiosity about it. She wanted to know she could stand it, the road in front’. In the end, she is rather carried along by events, displaying a degree of naivety about the likely consequences of her actions.

Latchkey Ladies encompasses the light-hearted, the serious and the tragic. Moments of humour include a scene in which visiting Dampier’s home, his youngest son approaches Anne with his book of Bible stories and asks, ‘Was Jesus Mr, Mrs or Miss?’  I also liked the acerbic, rather dismissive comments about authors given to Philip Dampier to express. ‘They were an egotistic, tiresome breed… They either told you carefully rehearsed impromptu stories that were good enough, or else they sat in jealous silence afraid of losing money or reputation by giving away an idea or a phrase.’  The tragic moments are exemplified by Miss Denby, whose rather fleeting appearance ends sadly, and the event that occurs near the end of the book. I found this rather cruel, as if Anne must be punished for what had gone before. I really did hope that she eventually took the tentative hand of friendship offered to her in the closing chapter.

Latchkey Ladies is an interesting look into the lives of single women in the early part of the last century and the opportunities and challenges they faced, written with style and a dash of wit.

I received a review copy courtesy of Handheld Press.

In three words: Wry, perceptive, stimulating

Try something similar: The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby

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Marjorie Grant CookAbout the Author

Latchkey Ladies (1921) was the first novel by the Canadian author Marjorie Grant Cook (1882-1965), and is drawn from her life in London as a single working woman.

She was a prolific and influential reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, and published seven novels.

She was close friends with Rose Macaulay, whose own secret affair with a married man may have provided the background for this novel.

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