Desire by Una Silberrad – Dangerous goods


This is my review of  Desire by Una L Silberrad

First published in 1908 and recently reissued, this novel by a once popular but long forgotten novelist is on the cusp between an Edwardian viewpoint of the position of women and hints of a more emancipated state of affairs.

The unsubtly named heroine Desire’s unconventional behaviour in fashionable London society could be attributed at first to her privileged position, despite her illegitimacy, as the indulged and unrestrained  daughter of a  wealthy London-based financier. Desire’s step-mother is highly critical, mistaking her frank enjoyment of the mental stimulus of male company for flirting, but has abdicated responsibility for trying to guide or control her.

Desire is intrigued by the straightforward honesty of Peter Grimstone,  a would-be author who has managed to get a book published. She uses her connections to promote sales of the novel and is horrified when his father’s illness places Peter under the obligation to return to the provincial town of Twycross to run the family’s struggling pottery works ,  but the tables are turned when she suffers an unexpected blow and needs his help.

It seems like an attitude formed in the author’s Victorian childhood to describe as “the man side” of her nature, Desire’s decisive, assertive approach as she becomes involved in Peter’s pottery business. There may also be an autobiographical influence at work here, since Una Silberrad’s brother was a  renowned industrial chemist who discussed his ideas with her, which may have enabled her  to write confidently about Peter’s inventions for improving the production process.

There is also a somewhat inconsistent shift in the development of the two main players as the dutiful,  plodding, limited Peter is transformed into a creative, even  masterful character, while Desire becomes more of a traditional, romantic heroine, concealing her budding passion and accepting her would-be lover’s  reticence in a way the original bold Desire would never have done.

I agree with the  initial  reviews, as in “The Spectator”, which found the opening description of a London soirée too contrived and unconvincing. The portrayal of upper class London life is more endurable if assumed to be tongue in cheek, with a touch of wry humour, including Paddy the dog who lies “with his feet in the air to court further attention”.  The novel certainly takes off once the action moves to Twycross, and the world of work,  although the tendency to caricature persists in the portrayal of Peter’s scheming brother Alexander and his  unappealing gossipy wife.  There are striking contrasts in the different types of female role presented:  Desire as the “new woman” who can work on equal terms alongside a man; Peter’s mother as  the dutiful and submissive wife who devotes herself to the needs of others, asking nothing for herself as she stifles her sociability to work away in an oppressively silent house; “Mrs Alexander” who enjoys flashy material benefits in return for  being controlled and belittled by a  domineering spouse.

This novel reminded me as times of Arnold Bennet’s “Anna of the Five Towns”. It is particularly strong in the vivid descriptions of the bleak beauty of the countryside round Twycross, an antidote to the drudgery of the production line.

This is a curate’s egg of a book. Although entertaining in parts with a neatly developed if somewhat contrived plot, the novel is too long and disappointed me towards the end in seeming unable to deal with deep human emotions without slipping into purple prose or pious pontificating – a result, I suppose of the author being born in 1872, religiously devout and never married.

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