This novel is a witty, episodic comedy of manners with a wafer-thin plot concerning the courtship and early married life of beautiful Hyacinth Verney and handsome, if conflicted, Cecil Reeve, set in Edwardian London society. Surrounding these two protagonist are a host of other characters, who both support and hinder their relationship. Principal among these are the "little Ottleys", both well above the average height: Edith, who is a little bored with married life, and her envious, hypochondriac husband Bruce. We also meet Sir Charles and Lady Cannon, Hyacinth's guardians; Cecil's music-loving uncle, Lord Selsey; Anne Yeo, a spinster of independent means who is Hyacinth's companion before her marriage; and Eugenia Raymond, a fortyish widow with whom Cecil is in love when the novel opens. Ada Leverson cleverly keeps all these characters in play, extracting the maximum comedy from their interactions.
The novel is episodic, with short chapters which might be utterly disconnected from each other in temporal terms, picking up the narrative only when something interesting happens, and stopping abruptly when the interest has passed. The final chapter, in particular, seems to stop rather than end, although there has been some rather unconvincing resolution of the plot by that point. The obvious comic triumph of the book is the characterisation of Bruce, a pompous bore part-way between Charles Pooter and The Pursuit of Love's Tony Kroesig. Bruce, who is spendthrift, self-aggrandising and lavish in his criticisms, spends "a great deal of his time and energy in disapproving generally of things and people that were no concern of his". As his wife, Edith has to practice a great deal of forbearance:
"'You're always smiling, Edith,' he complained. 'Particularly when I have something to annoy me.'
'Am I? I believe I read in the "Answers to Correspondents" in Home Chirps that a wife should always have a bright smile if her husband seemed depressed.'
'Good heavens! How awful! Why, it would be like living with a Cheshire cat!'"
Mainly, however, Edith appears to survive by being amused at her husband's little ways, rather than pushing him down the stairs as one might expect. Bruce is an amusing character, but I felt a little of him went a long way. More to my taste was the sharply witty tone of the narrative: Lady Cannon's dresses are "so tightly-fitting as to give her an appearance of being rather upholstered than clothed"; weddings are an emotional strain because the "frame of mind supposed to be appropriate to an afternoon wedding can only be genuinely experienced by an Englishman at two o'clock in the morning". Leverson is compared to Saki and Jane Austen on the cover of my copy, but she reads to me like a waspish blend of Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons at her funniest.
My main interest in the book was the depiction of Anne Yeo, one of the few characters in Edwardian fiction who can be read as lesbian. Anne has money, but chooses to live with Hyacinth because she loves her, although her expression of this is understood by Hyacinth to be a joke. Even in the context of this novel Anne is an odd character, eccentrically dressed and economical to the point of stinginess, given to sudden disappearances without explanation. Despite her oddness, she has qualities that make her attractive to other characters in the book - and to the reader. It's not really surprising that Ada Leverson, a close friend of Oscar Wilde, would have a positive view of variant sexuality, but it is notable that she has woven this view so deftly into a light novel, when it could be a cold spoon in the soufflé.