5 February 2018
Shiny New Books reviewed Desire on 6 March, describing it as ‘more than a romance, more than a coming of age book; it is a strong narrative of a woman and man whose strength of purpose rises above the normal, who therefore threaten the status quo in an ultimately positive way’. Read the full review here.
Desire is the story of an Edwardian New Woman who finds fulfilment in work and love after rejecting high society. First published in 1908, Una L Silberrad’s novel of professional integrity and feminist aspirations for the right to work was praised by contemporary reviewers because ‘it satisfies the intelligence at the same time as it appeals to the emotions’.
Desire Quebell is the illegitimate daughter and only child of a wealthy financier. He brings her up in luxury, and she enjoys the pleasures of society, yet she is not a conventional Edwardian daughter. She rebels intellectually, and chooses not to marry a successful man where there is no love or honour. She admires the work of provincial novelist Peter Grimstone, and uses him to engineer the break-up of her engagement. But her father has neglected to make provision for Desire in his will, so when he dies unexpectedly, she has to leave her home without a penny of her own. She moves to a boarding house and studies secretarial work, intending to find a job before the last of her jewel money runs out. But her class bars her from employment, and she can’t make new friends with being misunderstood.
Just as she faces destitution, Peter tracks her down with the offer of a job. Will Desire consider leaving London to be a book-keeper in a small Staffordshire town, away from everyone she has ever known? But her new life at Grimstone’s is not a haven. Peter’s father is an angry, bitter man, his mother is nervous and unhappy, and his brother Alexander is an unscrupulous plotter who wants Peter out of the way. Desire must face sexual aggression as well as social suspicion before she, and Peter, find the way to happiness, in work and life.
Read an extract from the Introduction by Cornelia Waechter:
‘ … Upon the publication of Desire, Constable advertised the novel in The Guardian with a quote from a Morning Post review that praises Silberrad as ‘one of the few writers whose books become friends at once, appealing to the best in their readers’. The reviewer describes Desire as ‘a well-written book; it satisfies the intelligence at the same time as it appeals to the emotions, and it sets up a fine romantic standard of life which should not be missed’.
The combination of pleasure and the satisfaction of intellect is not a coincidence. Numerous critics have drawn attention to the fact that any attempt at defining a dividing line between what would be categorised after the war as highbrow and middlebrow writing is futile. Nicola Humble describes both from the perspective of reading and the body. ‘Middlebrow’ reading is a relaxed and often reclining way of reading, whereas ‘highbrow’ reading involves a studious leaning forward, with pen or pencil in hand. Most importantly, both are possible with the same text depending on the context and the inclinations of the reader. One can argue that a middlebrow text invites both: relaxed reading simply for pleasure as well as encouraging further scrutiny and active cognitive effort – it ‘may at the same time be conducive to escapist consumption and include challenges to the established order’. This is certainly true for Desire.
Desire, the novel’s protagonist, is first seen at a London ‘soirée which the artistic gave to the fashionable’. She is being observed by Peter Grimstone, an author whose first novel is about to be published. He is conspicuous in his refusal to even try to gain access to Desire’s circle at the event, and this piques her curiosity. Peter is a provincial nobody; Desire is the independent upper-middle class daughter of Sir Joseph Quebell, a financial adviser to the government. Although she was born out of wedlock to a dancer of questionable reputation, her father treats her like a legitimate daughter, the men of her social environment flock around her and the women are (more or less secretly) jealous of her. Like many other of Silberrad’s characters, Desire privileges her own value system, which renders her not just indifferent but often oblivious to the social conventions that she defies. This particularly concerns her relationships with men, whom she discards just as readily as she invites their attentions … ‘
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paperback: ISBN 978-1-9998280-2-8
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