At the “Commercial and Technical College for South-West England”, a new Lady Superintendent has been appointed. Pauline Marchrose is the successful candidate, a woman claiming to be 28 but probably in her early thirties. Lady Edna Rossiter, wife of Sir Julian, one of the College directors, remembers that a woman of that name jilted her cousin Clarence after he was thought to be paralysed by a hunting accident. Edna is an inveterate meddler in College affairs, attending Board meetings and attempting to shape the characters of the staff by inviting them to her graceful home and taking them on nature-study outings. Sir Julian's agent Mark Easter also does some work at the College; Mark's wife is confined to a home for inebriates. Miss Marchrose (she is never called Pauline) and Mark are attracted to each other, and this attraction is fostered by Mark's sister Iris, lately engaged herself. Edna discovers that Miss Marchrose is indeed the woman who was engaged to her cousin. Although Miss Marchrose is very capable, and excellent at her job, Edna manages to cast doubt on her suitability, and an atmosphere of suspicion develops around her. Sir Julian admires Miss Marchrose's abilities, and becomes her confidant, but his support is no match for Edna's whispering campaign, and Miss Marchrose resigns, admitting to Sir Julian that she loves Mark, and would have become his mistress were he not too afraid. Immediately after her resignation, she agrees to marry Mr Fuller, the College Supervisor, another admirer of her work.
Tension opposes, rather interestingly, the roles of women in public life. Lady Rossiter typifies feminine influence, rather than power. Her social position gives her an entrée into the governance of the College, and she feels herself fully entitled to interfere where she desires; her position and her gender also allow her to manipulate the less intelligent and the more credulous when she cannot achieve her ends by more formal means. Miss Marchrose stands for the professional woman, well-qualified, diligent and successful at her job, whose evident attributes cannot withstand the effects of gossip and intrigue. The novel is harshly satirical about Lady Rossiter, with a wit that moves well past EMD's usual irony into sharp waspishness. Edna presents all her activities as motivated by love of her fellow human beings, but the third person narrative makes it quite clear that she does not always believe in this motivation. She is made to look ridiculous and patronising, inviting the College staff to Sunday tea; her frequently professed religious faith is shown to be shallow, and her husband's negative view of her is the most commonly heard narrative voice.
However, Miss Marchrose is not a straightforward exemplar of the professional woman, able to make her contribution to society through work rather than influence. Her relationship with Clarence, as explained to Sir Julian, shows her as less harsh than the bare facts appear; believing himself to be permanently paralysed, Clarence offers to release her from her engagement. Knowing that their relationship is based on Clarence's infatuation, which will not last, she agrees, but only after much soul-searching, and she continues to view her actions as shameful and to be concealed if possible. From a professional middle-class background, the death of her architect father forced her to seek paid work, and she describes her loathing of this way of life to Sir Julian; hostel life, with girls not of her class, left her lonely and unsatisfied, and she feared becoming like the older women around her, "pinched and discontented, always worrying over expense, and why there weren't two helpings of pudding at dinner, with nothing to do, nothing to look forward to - knowing themselves utterly and absolutely unnecessary in the world." (154). Her fears of this life pushed her into her engagement with Clarence. She enjoys her work at the College, and takes on more and more of it as well as helping Mark Easter with his estate work, but eventually escapes this to marry Fairfax Fuller. It is hinted that they will set up a branch of the College abroad, but will Miss Marchrose's professional skills be used, now that she has wifely influence at her disposal?
The historical setting of the book is not precisely given, but it appears to be before the first world war, as no reference is made to the war as a current or recent thing - and presumably the several men running the College would simply not have been there during the war. I wonder if Miss Marchrose's rejection of Clarence, to the post-war reader, would have been more shocking; many women must have had to make similar decisions and there would have been even more pressure to stand by your man, now a war hero, under those circumstances.
There is a tendency for the characters to assume that dull, repetitive work and food, and uncomfortable lodgings, are acceptable to those lower down the class scale, and the novel does relatively little to challenge this, although there is one humorous moment when Lady Rossiter encourages her Sunday visitors to enjoy her sea view, for "a draught of blue distance" (43), only to discover that one of them has taken rooms with a sea view and can look at it whenever she pleases. Lady Rossiter's ambitions to extend the cultural interests of the lower-middle-class College staff are presented as laughable, but then the only member of that group who is interested in personal improvement and long walks, Mr Cooper, is equally laughable. This ambiguity means that the book can take no position on class issues any more than it can on gender.
There is no feminist polemic here and in fact the rounded nature of the characters probably makes any sort of polemic impossible. Edna Rossiter's recollections of the circumstances in which she accepted Sir Julian's proposal of marriage show her as closer to Miss Marchrose than she cares to admit: she agreed to a marriage of convenience, for companionship rather than love, and to escape the fate of the old maid. Miss Marchrose has had, at least, the option and the ability to earn her living. Sir Julian's admiration for Miss Marchrose is rooted in his perception of her self-knowledge and integrity; he is not shocked by her love for Mark and her avowal that she would have defied convention to be his mistress if Mark had matched her courage. But her courage does not enable her simply to find another job at the end of the book; she too escapes into what must be in part a marriage of convenience to a man she may esteem but does not love. The regular use of Sir Julian's point of view in the narrative frames any challenge to established class and gender orders in a deeply conservative way; his mocking attitude to Iris and her fiancé Douglas, a rather shallow couple with more than a whiff of Bloomsbury about them, emphasises an enduring conservatism in relation to marriage and culture that is upheld even by the younger and more modern characters.