Rediscovering the Novels of Mary and Jane Findlater
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Rediscovering the Novels of Mary and Jane Findlater Jeanne M. Nichols Los Angeles, California UNTIL THE VIRAGO REPRINT of Crossriggs in 1986, the works of the two Scottish sisters Mary and Jane Findlater had almost disappeared . But between the publication of Jane's first novel, The Green Graves of Balgowrie, in 1896 and the publication of their last novel, Beneath the Visiting Moon, written together and published in 1923, their works had attracted considerable popular and critical acclaim. Under "Literary Notes and News" in the July 1896 Westminster Gazette was the comment, "Mr. Gladstone has been reading a great deal lately in the intervals between his theological studies, which occupy the best part of every day. One of the stories which charmed him most is The Green Graves of Balgowrie by Jane Findlater, a new writer."1 Gladstone's public attention provided the same kind of impetus to sales and public interest as had his 1888 review of Mrs. Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere, although his attitudes toward the two books differed as widely as the contents of the two novels did. Gladstone's favorable attention to an unknown Scottish writer who was publishing her first work not only changed Jane Findlater's life, but changed the life and career of her sister Mary as well.2 The literary world, too, was immediately responsive. Alice James, wife of William James, wrote to Jane: "I want to tell you what genius I feel in you. ... Do nothing else."3 Mary's literary acclaim grew along with Jane's, beginning with the publication of her first novel, Over the Hills (1897), and increasing so that after the publication of her fourth novel, The Rose of Joy, in 1903, Henry James wrote to her in predictably restrained language that her work had given him "very great pleasure."4 Later in Mary Findlater's writing career she received a note from 285 ELT 37:3 1994 Virginia Woolf saying in response to a note from Mary: "I am particularly glad to think that writers whose work I admire should find anything to please them in mine."8 But perhaps more important than their considerable critical acclaim was the popularity of their work with the book-buying public both in the British Isles and in the United States. After the death of their father, a minister in a small Scottish village, the Findlaters had to support not only themselves but also their mother and sister.6 The sisters, practicing household economies with coal and clothing in the Edinburgh winter, were very familiar with the dreary details of poverty. Because she could not afford new sheets of paper, Jane wrote the manuscript of The Green Graves on the local grocer's discarded account books.7 The Findlaters might be poor, but the sale of their books meant that they were self-supporting. Later they were able to build their own house in Rye, to travel, and to join in the middle and upper middle-class pleasures of luncheons, tea-parties, theatre-going, and country house visits. They lived entirely on the proceeds of their books. They wrote three novels together: Crossriggs (1908), Penny Monypenny (1911), and Beneath the Visiting Moon (1923).8 The rest of their work—consisting of novels written separately (Mary published six, Jane five) and collections of short stories, essays, and poems along with two light novels written with Kate Douglas Wiggin and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart)—totalled twenty-four publications in all. Their writing was widely read and appreciatively reviewed by such periodicals as the Westminster Gazette, Spectator, Athenaeum, New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement . The central characters in all of the Findlater novels are women, and the novels resonate particularly with the uncertainties of the single woman. Many times their problems are, of course, financial. As Jane Austen wrote to her niece Fanny Knight: "Single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony...."* But the Findlater heroines, even when comfortably off, would brood about what was to become of their lives.10 If they did not become wives and mothers, what then? What could they do, talentless , under-educated? What...