Herbert George Jenkins, interestingly one of P.G Wodehouse’s early publishers, was a very fine writer indeed. Whilst he was perhaps most famous for his characters Mr Joseph Bindle and Detective Malcolm Sage, Patricia Brent is certainly worthy of great affection.
Patricia is a twenty-four year old “spinster” living in a boarding house in London during the first world war, and working as secretary to a lacklustre politician. Possessed of a quick wit, warm heart, and highly developed sense of pride, she overhears some of her house-mates discussing her unmarried status with something approaching scorn, and immediately decides to take action. In a moment of rebellion against her mundane circumstances Patricia informs the guests of Galvin House that far from being a spinster she is in fact engaged to a Major Brown of the British Army, and that she will be dining with him the following night. Unfortunately she divulges the location of her rendezvous in the midst of her lie and when she arrives at the restaurant the next evening with the intention of having a quiet dinner alone, discovers to her horror that she has been followed by some of her more enterprising companions. Panicked, and desperate not to become an object of ridicule, she spots a soldier sitting alone and slips down into the chair opposite him. She urgently explains her predicament to the serendipitously-named Lieutenant-Colonel Bowen, who is much amused by the predicament and very taken by Miss Brent. They spend a wonderful evening together, and inevitably the young hero falls in love.
Unfortunately for Peter, who turns out to be both a decorated war hero and a Lord, Patricia is appalled by her behaviour and assumes that the man who has begun courting her in earnest thinks she must either be a floozy or a laughing stock. Her pride threatens to be an insurmountable barrier to their union, and it is only with the help of his enchanting sister Tanagra; Patricia’s closest friend, Mr Triggs; and an injured soldier called Godfrey that there is any hope of success.
This is, first and foremost, an absolutely charming, vivacious love-story. Full of wit and affection, Jenkins’ novel is peopled by a host of finely-drawn characters. Patricia has something of the Elizabeth Bennett about her, and shades of Flora Poste – she is a very intelligent woman who finds herself in the wrong circumstances, and though she is clearly much taken by Peter, refuses to relinquish either her self-respect or independence by returning his love. Peter is utterly charming throughout – kind, intelligent and almost unfailingly cheerful, he pursues Patricia with unabashed eagerness and accepts her rejections with sweet confusion. His sister Tanagra is everything you want from a young aristocrat in a romantic comedy – charming, slightly mad, a young woman who would have been perfectly at home amongst the Mitfords.
Jenkins also employs a wonderfully kooky turn of phrase, which is very much of its time – there are jokes about “a multitude of shins”; women are “as unreasonable as income tax”; Miss Wangle is “acid of speech and barren of pity”, and Patricia’s aunt is “Material, practical, level-headed, victorious, she would strip romance from a legend, or glamour from a myth.” There is the odd flash of contemporary sexism, of course – HGJ seems convinced that women are unable to experience introspection, for some reason, and much is made of the fact that one “cannot reason with a woman” – but it is good-natured, and much belied by the gumption of his heroine.
There is also a depth of meaning which is unusual in this kind of a novel. This is not just the sort of romp which might have flowed from Earl Derr Biggers’ pen; “Patricia Brent, Spinster” is set during the war, and does not sugar-coat it. Peter’s family home has been given over to convalescent, shell-shocked soldiers, and Peter and Tanagra’s great friend, the enigmatic Godfrey Elton, is recovering form an unnamed injury. There is also a keen sense of the importance of what is at stake here – as Tanagra says at one point, “happiness is not a thing to be taken lightly.” Many women of Patricia’s generation did indeed find themselves unmarried or widowed as a result of the war, and HGJ seems keenly aware of that – indeed, a sort of quiet sadness shadows the story, until you feel at points it does indeed teeter between a happy ending and a gaping “Quartet in Autumn” loneliness. By the last page, I must confess, I almost shed a tear. It is a wonderful story, and absolutely deserves to be brought back into print.