Published by The British Library
Publication date – 16 September 2021
Source – review copy
When her bohemian life in Paris falls flat at the beginning of the First World War, Sally Lunton returns to the care of her guardian in Little Crampton to find a husband. With some encouragement from the local busybody, she makes a play for Mr Bingley, the bank manager, although she has a rival in Mrs Dalton, a widow with a young daughter to raise. These two ladies form a quiet alliance, recognising that the prize isn’t really worth fighting over but respecting the other’s pursuit of financial security. Sally aims to win but is distracted by her unsettling emotions for a soldier tortured by his experience at the Front.
Sally is on the rocks. The war is getting ever near to her in Paris. She is without money, a means of income or a home. There is nothing for it but to return to the village of her youth, Little Crampton. Whilst staying at the home of her guardian she has to plan her future. And her future, one with money and a relative amount of comfort, can seemingly only be provided by the florid and stuffy Mr Bingley. And so Sally set out to squeeze a proposal from Mr Bingley before her rival Mrs Dalton achieves the same.
Sally isn’t easy to like, yet the reader does grow fond of her. She is selfish but has to be, the competition for eligible men is high, particularly as many of them are now fighting on the front. She is aware that it is ridiculous that she has to even entertain marrying Mr Bingley, and frustrated that this is seemingly the only way to secure her future. She and Mrs Dalton become friends, both determined to claim Mr Bingley as their own but each understanding the reasons for doing so. She is haunted by her past, only feeling secure that no-one knows of her secret, until they do.
Miss Maggie is the village gossip yet she is far more malignant than that implies. She seeks out secrets, unearths them through innocuous questions and detective work. She seems to live for those moments, the reflected glory of tea invitations and being sought out by people when one is revealed. She is, though this is never said, a lonely woman, left to live with her sister as her only company. She therefore took the easy path and looks to other people’s misfortunes to entertain her. Unfortunately for Sally, she is Miss Maggie’s next target.
Mr Bingley is depicted as a priggish bore, obsessed by a book of don’ts written by his dead mother, stating rules of what he should and shouldn’t be looking for in a wife. He is torn between Mrs Dalton and Sally. Slowly his obsession with money, keeping it, not spending it, and his regular routine are upset when Sally encroaches more and more into his head. He has particular thoughts and beliefs on the roles of women, who he calls the weaker sex, outdated even for the time, much more Victorian in his attitude. He is rather unlikable, though he begins to alter by the end of the book, whilst not making him appealing, he is changed a little for the better.
Kantyre is a wreck, haunted by his actions on the front line, he is ready for the end. Then he meets Sally, who is determined that he should live, acting reflexively from her compassion and goodness to help someone else. He is her respite from Mr Bingley, and makes her re-examine her own flaws.
This is an anti- romance novel. There is nothing romantic in Sally’s plot to marry Mr Bingley, nor is romance a driving force for Mrs Dalton to pursue him. She needs the stability his wages and his home will bring for herself and her daughter, after being left with little following her husband’s death.
Winnifred Boggs was cleverly commentating on women’s role in society in 1915. At a time when war was waging, they were still prevented from work, unless in a service role. They were dependent on marrying for a home and comforts and so had to ensure they could receive a proposal before they were deemed too old. The frustration and pain such a situation could cause was easy to see in Sally on the Rocks.
There is also the author’s condemnation of society’s disparate views on relationships and what was and wasn’t acceptable. Even a hint of sex before marriage condemned a women to stares and gossip at best and being shunned by society at worst. For the man involved it simple meant a shrug of the shoulders and the odd tut or too, or at a push, a request for forgiveness from any future spouse.
Sally on the Rocks is an entertaining, engaging tale that’s a comedy of manners but also much more. It is about society’s pressure on women and their expected role in it. It is about the need for stability and security and the sacrifices women had to make to ensure it. Finally, it is about love, old love, unrequited love and deep, unexpected love, and how dealing with it is not always as simple as it seems.