Messalina of the Suburbs

Date of publication
Hutchinson & Co
Dedicated to M. P. P. [Margaret Posthuma] My dear Margaret, We have so often agreed that causes are more interesting than the most dramatic results, that I feel you are the right person to receive the dedication of my story about Elsie Palmer, in which I have tried to reconstruct the psychological developments that let, by inexorable degrees, to the catastrophe of murder. these things are never "bolts from the blue", in reality, but merely sensational accessories to the real issue, which lies on that more subtle plane of thought where only personalities are deserving of dissection. For what it is worth, I offer you an impression of Elsie Palmer's personality. E. M. D., August 1923
Published reviews
Cook, Marjorie Grant, and M. Grant. ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1162, 24 Apr. 1924, p. 252; ‘Novel Notes: A Messalina Of The Suburbs’. The Sketch, 7 May 1924, p. 98.
Sixteen years old, having just left school and desultuorily helping her mother in their boarding-house, bored Elsie Palmer is highly aware of her sexual attractiveness to men. In the first chapter, she sneaks out to the cinema with Norman Roberts, a lodger in the house. She asks her friend Irene Tidmarsh to cover for her. Elsie is thrilled when he kisses her; not because she is particularly attracted to him, but because of her own excitement. In bed, later, she thinks that this is the reason why she should exist. An married couple, Mr and Mrs Williams, come to stay briefly with Mrs Palmer; Mrs Williams is pregnant and they are waiting to move into a new house. Mr Williams is older than his wife, and a solicitor. Elsie has been going out with the local boys, and has encouraged Irene's love interest to pay more attention to her. Her mother, displeased with her behaviour and her unhelpfulness at home, insists that she must get work outside the home, after a council of war with her sisters and her older daughter Geraldine. Elsie, humiliated, is seen by Mrs Williams who suggests she should go and work as a mother's help for her friend in Hampstead, Mrs Woolley. Elsie takes the job. The children are easy to look after, and at school most of the day, and while she is supposed to do the dusting while they are out, she soon realises that Mrs Woolley will not notice if she does or not. Dr Woolley begins to flirt with Elsie and then to try to kiss and caress her whenever he gets the opportunity. Eventually, Elsie gives in to him and they have sex. Mrs Woolley begins to be suspicious of her husband and when one of the children tells her she has seen him kissing Elsie, she makes a scene and throws her out. Back at home, Mrs Palmer takes her to see Mr Williams to see about getting Elsie's possessions back and the money due to her. They see his clerk, Mr Cleaver, who tells them that Mrs Williams has died. He writes a letter to the Woolleys about Elsie's trunk and back pay. The trunk is sent back with a letter from Dr Woolley bringing their relationship to an end. Mr Williams writes to Elsie inviting her to come for an interview for a clerical post and she is offered a job. After three months Mr Williams moves her desk into his office. Mr Williams begins to pay her little attentions, touching her occasionally and holding her gaze. He suggests that they might have a - allegedly chaste - holiday together in Brighton, and that he could buy her some new clothes or silk underwear to wear there. Elsie thinks about this, and greatly desires the silk underwear. She allows herself to picked up by a stranger on the way home, and they kiss in the park before eating supper in a café. Locked out by her mother for coming home late, she spends the night at Irene's, and confides in her about Mr Williams's invitation, which she is minded to accept. Irene advises her not to go, warns her that she could get pregnant - Elsie is very hazy about this - and to hold out for a marriage proposal instead. Elsie likes the idea of being married young, and decides to decline the invitation. Over the next three months, Mr Williams's interest in her increases. He tries to talk to her about sexual matters, including her relationship with Dr Woolley, and tries to give her a present of a brooch, which she refuses at first, saying she cannot accept presents from a man who does not intend to marry her. Some weeks later, he does actually propose and is accepted. They are married a fortnight later, with Irene as witness; Mrs Palmer is told afterwards, but is delighted. Elsie soon discovers that Mr Williams is a bully and views his wife as a possession. A year after their marriage, war is declared [so Elsie was born around 1894-5] and Mr Williams's business does better than ever; Elsie has plenty of money but little freedom, and regrets her marriage, although she is proud of the luxuries in her suburban home. Mr Williams refuses to allow her to take up any war-work. She keeps up her friendship with Irene, who provides her with drugs to prevent, or get rid of, any baby that might be conceived; Elsie does not want to have a child. After the war, Irene comes to invite Elsie to visit a fortune-teller with her. Madame Clara sees passionate love in Elsie's future, advises her to beware of the written word, and then screams when she sees her covered in blood, her name known all over England. Elsie faints, and cannot initially remember this, but Irene, after taking her home in a taxi, leaves in a hurry. Elsie reflects on the dullness of her life and the impossibility of any passionate love coming her way, and daydreams of what it would be like if Mr Williams were to die. Visiting her family, she meets Leslie Morrison, a man younger than her who worked with Geraldine during the war. He is now a travelling salesman for a silk company. They are strongly attracted to each other, and Mrs Palmer attempts to warn Elsie off. Elsie encourages Leslie to visit her at home, and he does so; she finds herself having very sentimental feelings about him. She and Mr Williams are due to go on holiday to Torquay, and Geraldine is to come too; Elsie writes to Leslie and suggests he might join them there. He replies positively. Geraldine attempts to deter Elsie from her pursuit of Leslie on the train there, suggesting that he would never get involved with a married woman. On holiday, Elsie and Leslie's relationship develops and Elsie is consumed by passionate happiness. Mr Williams develops digestive trouble. Back in London, Irene is again used as an excuse to meet Leslie at a hotel in Essex; Mr Williams is becoming suspicious. Elsie and Leslie write to each other on the understanding that the letters must be burnt. Elsie tells Irene that she wishes Mr Williams would divorce her or die so she can be with Leslie. Irene points out that they would have no money and would be isolated after the scandal. Mr Williams and Leslie argue over Elsie, and Mr Williams refuses a divorce or separation, and threatens Leslie; Elsie makes him leave their house. She placates Mr Williams by suggesting she is not in love with Leslie, but still wants to separate. He refuses. Elsie is in despair. Leslie is away for work, and she sees him only very occasionally. She suggests to Mr Williams that they should have Leslie as a lodger. Furious with her, he accuses her of being in love with Leslie, and when she doesn't deny this, he throws her against a wall, bruising her arm. She rings up Leslie and tells him about this. They agree to meet later that day. Then her husband rings, saying he has theatre tickets and will take her to dinner first. She meets Leslie and suggests they should run away together, but Leslie points out that he cannot afford to keep her. She shows him her bruises and tells him, falsely, that Mr Williams has hit her before. They talk of a suicide pact, although Leslie is not keen, and talk again of why Mr Williams will not die. At the theatre, they run into Elsie's aunts, and Mr Williams takes them all for supper. After midnight, they take the tube home and walk home, at Elsie's suggestion, by a back road, the Grove. Suddenly Leslie Morrison appears, and demands that Williams give Elsie her freedom. He refuses, and Leslie produces a knife and stabs him before running away. Elsie calls for help; the police come and take her to the station. Her mother comes and tells her that she is at risk of being arrested for murder. Elsie gives a statement and names Leslie as the killer. Later, she is charged with murder. Mr Cleaver, asked to advise, tells Elsie that Leslie had kept all her letters and they are full of evidence that she wished for her husband's death; Irene has also given a statement to that effect. Elsie realises the inevitability of her conviction and execution, but cannot realise how she came to this state. The novella is published with a number of short stories: "The Bond of Union" (pp185-190, dedicated to A.P.D. [presumably Arthur Paul Dashwood]) Beautiful Lady Pamela March is holding the rapt attention of a group of men, telling about how she was kidnapped by Sinn Fein and held captive with another woman; during their brief captivity, and when walking to safety after being released, they tell each other everything about their lives. The narrator sees them shortly afterwards, passing each other in cars in Bond Street, and sees that they recognise each other but each cuts the other; they know too much about each other. "Lost in Transmission" (pp193-209) Maude, a music teacher, has made a late marriage to Edgar Lambe, a wealthy man made wealthier by successful house-building during the War. They live in a luxurious and well-appointed house and Maude is slightly shocked at first by the extravagant housekeeping bills, although her husband thinks her very prudent. They have two little girls, and Maude runs the house well. The only problem is Edgar's Aunt Tessie, who is elderly and eccentric, with a loud voice, coarse manners and a prodigious appetite. Edgar is fond of her because his own parents were cruel to him, and she was a safe haven during his childhood, so he wants to provide the same for her. She becomes paranoid, suggesting that the family want to poison her. Maude manages this for a while by giving her her own dedicated maid, Emma. Emma becomes the only person Aunt Tessie will trust, and she is embarrassing on social occasions and loathed by the children. Edgar refuses to hear of sending her to a nursing home, but a nurse is appointed to care for her at home. Aunt Tessie exhibits symptoms of extreme persecution mania. Maude realises she is pregnant and this is the stimulus for Edgar to arrange for Aunt Tessie to move to a nursing home. Emma, discussing Aunt Tessie with the nurse, suggests that Aunt Tessie's talk about poisoning and risk was a way of expressing that she understood the family did not want her there - and she trusted Emma because she had never wanted to send her away. "Time Works Wonders" (pp213-219) Adela, an unmarried writer of thirty, meets Hal Willoughby, a blond man with a moustache who has been in India at a party. He flirts with her in a garden scented with syringa blossoms, and talks to her about her writing. Adela is dispirited by his routine questions, irritated when he talks of her earnings as pocket-money (her last advance was £200) but the narrative points out that she has always lived with her mother, so her earnings have never had to pay for rent or food. Hal teases her that her stories must be love stories, and, offended, Adela tries to return to the party. Hal suggests that she should be nicer to him, as he is going away tomorrow, and they kiss. In the second section, it is about fifteen years later. Adela's mother has died, she has inherited money and also become very celebrated as an author. She enjoys the role of successful mature writer, and indulges in the mild eccentricity of retiring to a Yorkshire cottage to write, wearing trousers and smoking. Meeting a new young admirer, who insists that Adela must have known passion in order to write of it so well, Adela recounts the story of Hal Willoughby again, but now transformed into an account of great love. "The Gallant Little Lady" (pp223-231) Rita, the daughter of Lady Clyde and stepdaughter of Sir Charles Clyde, is in love with Richard Lambourne, a rubber planter in the Malay States. Sir Charles thinks they should not marry, because Richard has only his salary and Rita a small income inherited from her father. He makes it plain to Lady Clyde that he will no longer support Rita if the marriage goes ahead - his money will be for their other children. Rita and Richard marry; an elderly friend comments that she is a "gallant little lady" for marrying for love. Three years later, there is a slump in the rubber trade and Richard loses his job. They return to England planning to manage temporarily on Rita's income, but Richard cannot find any work. Rita steps up (gallantly) and gradually reduces her servants, doing the childcare and housework herself; her family and friends admire her bravery. Sir Charles attempts to find Richard a job, but without success. Rita maintains a bright, cheerful demeanour despite her circumstances, while Richard becomes more and more anxious and depressed. After a visit, Sir Charles tells Lady Clyde that he thinks Rita's gallant bravery is driving Richard mad. Shortly afterwards, Richard commits suicide. Later, Rita marries the elderly (and wealthy) friend who admired her gallantry at her first meeting. "The Hotel Child" (pp235-245) Dedicated to Y. de la P. - Yolande de la Pasture. A first-person narrative by Miss Arbell, an English governess. She first sees Laura di san Marzano in the Borghese gardens in Rome, where Miss Arbell takes her charges (children of the British Ambassador) to play each day. She is struck by the smart little girl, aged about 8, with unfashionable but elegant short hair and an aristocratic air of breeding. One day they have a conversation, and she discovers that Laura has an Italian father and French-English mother, but they have separated. She is to live with her father until she is ten, and they live entirely in hotels, moving on frequently. In the summer, her father takes her to the country where they are joined by a different lady each year; it is plain that she understands these women to be her father's lovers. Four years later, in Lucerne, Laura and Miss Arbell meet again. Laura is now with her mother, a glamorous woman in jewels and make-up and surrounded by men. Laura now has her hair in a long plait, but is wearing short dresses that make her look much younger than she is. Laura has been moving about between New York, London and continental Europe with her mother. Later, Miss Arbell witnesses Laura sending away the hotel hairdresser after he is late, with great sophistication and perfect French, although she says she will pacify her mother so that he can come back tomorrow. Much later, after eleven, Miss Arbell sees Laura sitting up with her mother and her friends, barely awake; her chair is too high, and her feet are swinging gently to and fro. Their final meeting is at Lumdeen School in England where Miss Arbell has taken a post. Laura arrives mid-term, on a whim of her mother's, with an unsuitable wardrobe and the other girls take an instant dislike to her. The school is sporty, conformist and focused on rote learning; Laura fails at all of these and finds the other girls uncivilised. Finally Laura is accused of cheating in a test; she defends herself, denying that she has done so, but then is totally ostracised. Her mother, on another whim, returns to take her away. She comes to say goodbye to Miss Arbell, who congratulates her on standing up for herself. Laura says that it would have been much easier for her if she hadn't actually cheated. In a postscript, we learn that Laura married a wealthy French Catholic nobleman and has two children, who are being brought up strictly as Catholics while she does some charitable work. [It is hard to date the action of this story. Motor-cars are in use and a Lanchester is specified; the Lanchester company operated from 1899-1931. Ragtime is playing in the Lucerne hotel, but this was also popular over the same period. Laura's mother's dress is not described in enough detail to date it; the narrator finds her make-up notable. The war is not mentioned and there is a general air of luxury that points at the Edwardian period.] "Impasse" (pp249-256) Dedicated to S. M. A. - unclear who this might be A convent of Catholic nuns run an orphanage in [probably] London. The orphans need to go to the dentist, and Irish Sister Clara and Sister Dominic are to take them there. Forty-year-old Sister Clara has been troubled by 'sensuality of thought' occasionally. Dressed for the short walk as for a long journey, in heavy additional veils, they arrive at the dentist. He is a young man with dark eyes, friendly and kind to the children. Sister Clara is slightly astonished to find that she can make conversation with him and shake hands on departure, although the pressure of his hand is resonant. Sister Clara makes several return visits, with the orphans and then with Mother Seraphina, whose false teeth need adjusting. Then she makes an appointment for herself, consumed with curiosity to feel his hands about her face. She needs a filling, and he gives her a mirror so she can see what he has been doing; she is appalled to see her red face and foolish smile, having not looked in a mirror for twelve years. The dentist tells her that there is no more work to do, and he mentions in passing that it seems a shame for her to be in a convent when there is work to do outside, like being his secretary. Clara is shocked how emotional their leave-taking makes her feel. Mother Seraphina decides that no one from the convent needs to see the dentist again. The weather is hot, and Sister Clara is troubled by insomnia and her desire for the dentist. She decides that she will leave the convent, and goes out early in the morning, appalled by the slam of the door behind her. It has turned cold. She arrives at the dentist and finds only the cleaner there. When the dentist arrives, he assumes she has come because of an abcess; he looks different, somehow, too. "The Appeal" (pp259-266) Narrated in the first-person by Bobbie, the now-adult son of Mary and Robert Jarvis, and self-styled "modern", this is an account of how his mother - prone to emotionalism and making scenes, and unhappy in her marriage to the rationalist Robert - ran away from home and got as far as Assisi. Her grandmother, Mrs St Luth, who is similarly emotional and lives with the family, goes in pursuit of her and tries to persuade them to come back. Bobbie reconstructs their discussion of this from the variable accounts that each party has brought back from this trip; Mrs St Luth's trump card is that Robert will not give up his son to Mary to raise in the event of a divorce or separation. She adds, emotionally, that Bobbie has been asking "Where's Mummie?" in plaintive tones. The adult Bobbie, doubts that he was seriously upset as a stolid and unreactive four-year-old. Mary returns, has a genuine nervous breakdown and eventually resumes family life. But the couple is never happy, there are frequent scenes and eventually his father embarks on an affair. Mrs St Luth often repeats that her existence is justified because she reunited mother and son. Bobbie, though, considers that he is the victim of his parents' unhappy marriage, and wonders if bringing his mother home was really the best thing. "The First Stone" (pp269-288) One-act play, listed separately.
crime extra-marital affairs sex