E. H. Pritchard, A Lady in Peril, ed by Ruth Frump. Shearwater Classics, 2013.
By the time E. H. Pritchard (1817–1928) came to write his third novel, he had paid his writerly dues. The early Bonnet in the Thresher (1847), whilst rough around the edges, had spectacular flashes of the sober, steady prose for which he is today dearly remembered. Love and Grass (1855), its worthy successor, is a classic of love, loss and herbaceous foliage. For a long time many assumed that A Lady in Peril (1875) was forever destined to live in the shadow of its predecessors, but a new edition of this great work reminds us of a nineteenth-century giant at his best.
Serialised in The Cornmagnet (1822–1899), A Lady in Peril recounts the story of Dotty Sissington, whose disastrous marriage to Arcadius Prattbaron and her subsequent indigence in the Indian subcontinent, is the peril to which the title portentously refers. Upon returning to the Cotswolds, she is shocked to discover that her family is mostly dead or maimed (her father has been injured in a horse accident, her brother Tuppy is drowned, Miffy suffocated by floral prints and Nuffy victim of a snuff overdose) which nevertheless provides a fortuitous opportunity for her to prove her excellent skills of repentance. She ends up realising her true affection for the rustic and confident Ardent Reeds, only for him to be trampled by rams moments before she can make this known to him.
Dotty was Pritchard’s favourite heroine by virtue of her ‘admirable thrift,’ acknowledging his three page description of her shaving a thrupenny off the linen account as ‘the greatest thing I have ever written.’ She is initially seduced by the wealth of Prattbaron, who is quick to boast of his many orchards, but only after thirty chapters comes to see him for the violent drunkard and philanderer he truly is. By this time, Reeds, a dependable and less gouty presence (and a thinly veiled version of Pritchard himself) is selflessly caring for her family back home, but even he is unable to prevent treacle-loving Tuppy’s tragic rowing boat accident, and his own eventual martyrdom.
Although it takes 600 pages to reach the peril, the novel is perhaps Pritchard’s greatest achievement. Described by Trollope as ‘wonderfully boring,’ the highest compliment an author could be paid in those times, it speaks to us today of steady social change, and the reassuring certainty of a Presbyterian God proving points in the lives of ordinary country bumpkins.
David John Cowling is editing the 1,600 pages of Pritchard’s unpublished ‘Autobiographical Fragment’ for Cambridge University Press. With apologies to the eminent Victorians.