The Third Miss Symons by F M Mayor

The story of a Victorian spinster. A surplus woman. A life unlived.

It doesn’t sound compelling, and yet it is: The Third Miss Symons has tied me up in knots.

Henrietta, known to her family as Etta, was a fifth child and a third daughter, and was to be followed by more children.

“A large family should be a specially happy community, but it sometimes occurs that there is a boy or a girl who is nothing but a middle one, fitting in nowhere.”

And so it was with Etta. Partly because of her position in the family. Her two elder sisters were close, her brothers were another group, and the younger ones were too much younger. It happens. 

It was impossible not to feel for the little girl who so wanted just a little more acceptance, a little more understanding, a little more importance.

But it was easy to see that Etta didn’t have the social skills, the understanding of the small details and interactions that relationships are built upon. That wasn’t helped by her family situation or the strictures of the society that she was born into, but surely Etta herself had to take some of the responsibility.

“Why was it that people did not love her? She was not uglier or stupider or duller than anyone else … Why had God sent her into the world if she were not wanted? She found the problem insoluble.”

She has no insight, no empathy with other people. She wants to be loved, but too often she confuses that with being important. She tries, but she just doesn’t understand. And others see her as difficult and bad-tempered, so difficult and bad-tempered was what she becomes.

Ultimately she did not crave a husband, or children, or companionship. She just wanted a role and some status. But in her heart she knew that she would never have the life she wanted.

I found it painful watching the decline of a woman, brought up in an age when having a husband, children, a household of her own, was perceived as the only route to happiness and success, when there was no other way that was not perceived as failure for women who could not achieve, or maybe even did not want, that.

And I thought just many other possibilities there would have been for Etta if she had been born even one generation later.

But then I thought a little more. I wondered if she would have taken chances offered to her, when she couldn’t find any joy in small things. She had nieces and nephews. She was able to travel. She had chances to do good works …

Yes, she had a narrow and restricted life, but there were possibilities, opportunities that she either failed to notice or failed to appreciate.

But maybe that is too much too ask when someone is fundamentally unhappy … Yes, I think it is …

Etta didn’t understand her world, but I’m not sure that her world ever took the trouble to understand Etta.

Although …

So many questions that I am still turning over in my mind.

And, although Etta lived in a very different world, many of the questions that her story raises still resonate today.

And I am asking them because F M Mayor has created an utterly believable life. She tells Etta’s story simply and clearly, with real understanding and compassion.

The portrait she paints is most definitely psychologically true.

The Third Miss Symons is not a happy book, but it is a book with much to say.

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