Date of publication
Hutchinson & Co
To Paul [Dashwood], husband and comrade. For the friendship of our days, For your very pleasant ways, For the many times we've laughed, For your kindness to my craft, Let me dedicate to you The book of mine I hold most true.
‘Fiction: Humbug’. Saturday Review, Dec. 1921, pp. 693–94; Murray, D. L. ‘A Realistic Novel: Humbug’. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1040, 22 Dec. 1921, p. 857; Symon, J. D. ‘Books of the Day’. The Illustrated London News, 7 Jan. 1922, p. 20; ‘Novel Notes: Humbug’. The Bookman, Feb. 1922, p. 236.
Lily Stellenthorpe, aged seven when the novel opens, is the younger daughter of Philip and Eleanor Stellenthorpe, who raise their children in a manipulative, hypocritical way which never involves abuse or anger, but a constant sense of grievance that a child may have been naughty; they are incapable of approaching a subject directly. They impose anticipatory guilt on Lily for any potential wrongdoings. Lily's sister Vonnie has a developmental delay caused by a childhood illness; Lily, a pretty, lively child, is consequently much favoured and taken about for treats by her parents. She loves Vonnie passionately and is often very angry about this unfairness, which Vonnie does not, in fact, mind. Vonnie gets agonising earache and Lily is disturbed and unhappy about this; one day she wishes that Vonnie could die so that she would not have any more earache. Vonnie becomes ill with a brain tumour. The seriousness of her illness is kept from Lily who nevertheless understands that something bad is going on. Vonnie does die, and Lily experiences a mixture of guilt and relief, but she cannot talk to her parents about Vonnie - they have sentimentalised her memory, and Lily cannot recognise her sister in the way she is described. A year or so later, Eleanor has another baby, a son called Kenneth. She is rather ill afterwards. When Kenneth is a year old, he catches scarlet fever. Lily is sent to stay at a convent which perplexes her very much; she cannot do anything for herself, the standards of modesty required are unfamiliar, and the other girls tease her. The convent rules mean she does not get enough sleep, and (this is described very vaguely) lack of attention from the nuns to her bodily health mean she becomes constipated and unwell. Before Lily can come home for Christmas, her mother, who has been nursing her little boy herself, succumbs to scarlet fever and dies. Philip is unsure of how to manage Lily's education and takes advice from his wife's cousin, Charlie Hardinge, who suggests the school his three daughters attend. Lily finds this to be another perplexing place, insisting constantly upon a sense of honour, obsessed with games at which Lily is a failure, and delivering an education low in academic standards. Lily never really settles there and does not really make any friends, even among her cousins. Before leaving, she is given a long talk by the headmistress Miss Melody which diagnoses in Lily a fear of responsibility. Lily thinks this entirely wrong, but lacks the assertiveness to say so. At home after school, Lily is discontented. Her father is incapable of realising she is older, and treats her like a little child; he cheapens a teenage romance she has by forbidding her from writing to the boy, which she had no intention of doing. Edith Hardinge suggests sending Lily to visit a relative, and the only one available is Aunt Clotilde, Philip's sister, who lives in Italy. Lily is dispatched there. Aunt Clo is a bohemian spinster who lives rather eccentrically in a small town near Rome. While there, she meets Nicholas Aubray, a friend of her aunt's, a barrister in Italy for work. They visit the sights of Rome with him and a friend he is staying with, the Marchese della Torre. Nicholas is attracted to Lily and they develop a friendship, although she is very unsure about her feelings for him. Aunt Clo encourages her to consider him as a potential husband. Lily agrees that Nicholas should be allowed to write to her. Subsequently he comes to visit her at home with her father, who is also in favour of the match. Lily is unsure what to do, and whether she really loves him. She tries to get advice from her cousins, Miss Melody and her father, but none of them really help. She realises how little she knows her own mind. Eventually she agrees to marry him. They honeymoon in Paris and things go reasonably well, although Lily is unsure if she is really as happy as other people tell her she should be. She wonders about a more active religious life, but does not really pursue it. Her cousin Dorothy Harding becomes engaged to Jack, who works in India and will take her out there. A year later, Charlie Hardinge dies suddenly. Lily thinks very much about what has happened to his soul, and the inadequacies of most religons for describing the after-life. She flirts with the idea of becoming a Catholic, as the idea of purgatory is reassuring, but realises she cannot - and does not want to -suppress her sense of doubt in authority. Lily is increasingly unhappy with Nicholas, who irritates her; she believes that as she loves him, she should find him perfect, and the effort to do so exhausts her. She begins to fantasise about leaving him and beginning again, of being available for a real lover. Four years into their marriage, she has a miscarriage (not for the first time, it is implied) and becomes unwell. Nicholas suggests as a nurse a girl of his acquaintance, red-headed Doris Dickenson, who he thinks will be better company for Lily. Lily dislikes her very much, but is too weak to do anything about it, even when it is clear that Doris is paying too much attention to Nicholas. Aunt Clo arrives for a visit and Lily tells her that she cannot bear Doris; Aunt Clo dismisses her. The Aubrays' house is being renovated, and Lily goes to stay with her father. She tries to tell him how unhappy she is in her marriage, but he is shocked and says it is a mortal sin to leave her husband. Kenneth, now about 17, comes home and mentions that he has seen a red-headed woman letting herself in to Lily's house. Both Philip and Lily understand the implications of this, and Philip suggests the possibility of divorce. Lily summons Nicholas, who realises he has been caught out and is contrite. She suggests that divorce would set them both free to start again, although he points out the social damage that would be done to her. She agrees to consider her options and for the first time really thinks something out for herself. She decides that, since she is merely fond of Nicholas, there is nothing really to forgive in his adultery, and she will stay with him. Lily then finds she is pregnant and determines, with Nicholas, that she will bring up her child with greater honesty and frankness, and a sense that he belongs to himself and not to her. Her son is born at the end of the novel.
Catholicism education fatherhood marriage miscarriage pregnancy sex sibling relationships