Philobiblon: Sister Anne: A cautionary tale

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sister Anne: A cautionary tale

Everyone is posting Christmas stories, and while the following isn't exactly that, it seems appropriate to the season. It might also be given as a cautionary tale to those women who think it is a good idea to throw their fate and future into the arms of a man.

Sister Anne

from The Spell of London, by HV Morton (first published 1926)

In Bloomsbury there is a captive lady. I have seen her. She sits at a window in a tall, grim house, too near the roof to be the owner and not quite high enough to be the maid. She reads a lot, I believe, and thinks more than she reads, for whenever I see her she has just looked up from a book, and is gazing down into the rather too consciously respectable square with eyes which may, or may not, see the life that goes on there.

She reminds me of Sister Anne of the fairy-tale turret; only she is a much older Sister Anne, with a something about her that tells me how long ago she renounced all hope of seeing a horseman come spurring down the road to rescue. She is the lady of the bed-sitting-room ... 'a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances.'

'Bed-sitting-room, with use of bath.' There are thousands in London, in every great city, and in many of them a woman is sitting 'like Patience on a monument smiling at Grief. It is good for us now and then to know hard times, but it is tragic to fall into that hopeless category among those who 'have known better times'. Sister Anne has known better times, and that, I think, is what she is always thinking about when she forgets to read and sits looking down into that too self-consciously respectable square.

'I remember when my dear Henry was alive,' she always says, if you listen long enough; for that is the burden of all her thought. Dear Henry, however, died and left her stranded. He either crashed on the Stock Exchange, or she discovered that everything was mortgaged, and she turned to face life alone—imagine beginning life alone at fifty—in a bed-sitting-room 'with use of bath'!

There is little that Sister Anne can do. What can a woman who has been nursed all her life learn at fifty? Sometimes, I think, I have seen her steal into Bond Street shops trying to look like a customer. She unwraps a brown paper parcel and takes out embroidery; for her mother fortunately taught her to be 'clever with her needle'. They give her a few shillings and some more work. Out into Bond Street she goes, still trying to look like a customer, for, you see, she has the pride of the poor and the shame of 'having known better days'.

'Poor thing!' they say in the shop. Or perhaps: 'Do you remember when Mrs. X used to drive up in her carriage?'


In the bed-sitting-room in Bloomsbury are those few things which she managed to snatch from the creditors and the auctioneer; a silver frame, that looks so alien in a tawdry room, from which dear Henry gazes out with the blithe and dashing expression so characteristic of his more prosperous day. A chair or two; a carriage clock: useless knick-knacks which look as queer in that nakedness as the strange things the sea leaves when the tide goes out. . . . Sometimes there is a photograph of a child who, had he lived, would be a man now, capable of picking his mother up from the humiliation of a bed-sitting-room.

In the winter, when coal is dear. Sister Anne leaves her turret and spends the day in the rest rooms of the big Oxford Street stores, writing innumerable letters, reading magazines, and watching other women; remembering things about the other half of her life.

Or she haunts, like a ghost, those parts of good hotels where there is no danger of being handed a bill. The porters and the clerks know that she has no appointment in the lounge or the writing-room. Sister Anne just sits there because it is warm,, and because it is what she was once accustomed to do before dear Henry escaped from this life.

London is cruel to the lonely. As long as you have a pound note to squander, you find a friend. When the last penny goes, and you are too proud to exhibit your poverty, Solitude and Memory perch on your window-sill like birds of ill omen; and you grow inward and talk to them; and people think you are talking to yourself.

So whenever I walk through Bloomsbury and see Sister Anne's refined white face at a window, I wonder why some of the altruism that runs waste does not trickle in her direction.

How much happiness a Bed-Sitting-Roomers Club would bring into the world I am not prepared to say, knowing a little of human nature. But it always seems to me that if Sister Anne could, without any loss to her dignity or any hint of that kind of charity which thrives on the enjoyment of pitying be drawn away from that lonely window she might learn how to smile again—as she did before poor, dear Henry, with characteristic dash, flung his widow at Fate.


The fairytale Sister Anne reference appears to be to the story of Bluebeard.


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