Early in Red Pottage, Lord Newhaven confronts his unfaithful wife. During their conversation, which takes place in her bedroom, Lord Newhaven picks up a book—"an Imitation of Christ, bound in that peculiar shade of lilac which at that moment prevailed." It's a small, but telling detail, since Cholmondeley's novel is about what is real and what is imitation, what is true Christian behavior and what is pious cant, what is genuine and what is merely fashionable.
In a few pages, we are introduced to Sybell Loftus, a superficial woman who, Cholmondeley tells us archly, "had not the horrid perception of difference between the real and the imitation which spoils the lives of many." At Sybell's party, the conversation turns to Hester Gresley, a young woman who has written a popular novel set in the slums of east London. One of the pseudo-intellectuals at the party condemns the novel, saying, "it is a misfortune to the cause of suffering humanity—to our cause—when the books which pretend to set forth certain phases of its existence are written by persons entirely ignorant of the life they describe."
"To me they seem real," says Miss Gresley's friend, Rachel West.
Rachel has lived for many years in the slums of east London, working as a seamstress, before receiving an unexpected inheritance. An unexpected inheritance, an affair, a suicide pact—Cholmondeley's novel is full of elements of late Victorian sensation novels , but it's also a biting satire of society, a romance, and a novel of ideas. Cholmondeley is interested in the truth of art, the power of sympathy, and the plight of unmarried women.
At the heart of the novel is the theme of friendship between women. In a particularly heartfelt passage, Cholmondeley writes: "Here and there among its numberless counterfeits a friendship rises up between two women which sustains the life of both, which is still young when life is waning, which man's love and motherhood cannot displace nor death annihilate; a friendship which is not the solitary affection of an empty heart nor the deepest affection of a full one, but which nevertheless lightens the burdens of this world and lays its pure hand on the next." Red Pottage is dedicated to Cholmondeley's sister Victoria. It is interesting to see how sustaining the bond of sisterhood was to the New Women of the 1890s as they tested their independence, and began to claim their rights as individuals and their voices as writers.*
In Red Pottage, Hester dedicates her second novel, which she describes as being like a child to her, to Rachel. There is almost a kind of spiritual and intellectual marriage between the two women that sustains them through all of the sensations and setbacks of the novel's ingenious plot.
One other of Cholmondeley's novels is currently in print, her 1893 novel Diana Tempest, published by Valancourt Press. Red Pottage was a massive bestseller in both England and America in 1899. Like many of the novels I review on this blog, I believe it should still be more widely read.
*The Cholmondeley sisters were also intimate friends with the novelist sisters Jane and Mary Findlater.