The Mistress of Pennington's
Rachel Brimble takes us back to a time when women were just beginning to emerge as authors of their own destiny with The Mistress of Pennington’s, the first in her series of novels about a fictional department store set just after the turn of the twentieth century.
Elizabeth Pennington has been put to work managing the ladies’ department of her father’s signature Bath store, but she’s yearning to put her own stamp on a business that belongs to her alone instead of the family. Society, naturally, doesn’t see anything ahead of her but a happy marriage and many children, but she has a nose for the retail business, and even though her father resists her ideas for change, Elizabeth is too bright and to innovative to be silenced. She ignores balls and social events in the hope of broadening the base of the business. Edward Pennington thinks he’s simply giving his daughter a toy to play with – an autocrat who doesn’t think highly of women, his emotional abuse drove his beautiful society wife to suicide, a fate Elizabeth is determined to resist in spite of the emotional abuse he heaps upon her.
Elizabeth wants to expand the appeal of Pennington’s so that it attracts customers from the lower classes as well as the upper; and she is also very ‘hands-on’, mixing with the sales staff to make sure they’re happy in their work – something her snobbish father has no interest in – and giving them more breaks. Her outraged father refuses and is trying to push her into marrying Noel, a peer of his with similar views.
Enter Joseph Carter, a handsome and successful glove and hat manufacturer, who wants Penningtons to carry his brand in their store. Joseph has been single-mindedly devoted to two things since his wife Lillian was murdered two years earlier; finding her killer and making Carter and Son the best and most well-known brand in all of England, with a proportion of the profits going to help the impoverished, as was his and Lillian’s dream. It’s Elizabeth he meets when he comes to sell his wares, and both parties are startled and pleased at the attractiveness, caring attitude and intense ambition of the other.
Elizabeth comes to believe that Joseph’s highly desired gloves might be the leverage she needs to prove her worth as a buyer, and Joseph thinks that department stores like Pennington’s are a way towards helping will help him increase wages and thus support more homeless people. His father worries that supplying to a major department store will force them to leave behind their painstaking craftsmanship and old-world style; hers accuses Elizabeth of trying to flirt with Joseph. But Elizabeth and Joseph strike a deal independently; if his gloves pass a trial sale, then she will give him a manufacturing team on the stores’ premises. The partnership goes well and brings them closer together, but just as their mutual attraction seems ready to take flight, a series of family secrets emerge that connect the Penningtons to the Carters through miles of twisted family history. Can Joseph and Elizabeth find their way though the messy maze Edward’s machinations to their happily ever after?
The Mistress of Pennington’s falls on that borderline between women’s fiction and romance. It is surprisingly brutal about the various suicides and murders within its pages, but the romance is by-the-books traditional.
Indeed, there are a fair number of clichéd plot ideas here – a society girl who yearns for the respect of an abusive parent and cares about the working class, who is being pressured into marriage against her will meets a man with a tragic dead wife for whose death he blames himself, and a romance made difficult by class disparity and feuding parents who share a twisted history. It’s a plot that’s been played out over and over again in the romance world, and the style in which it is told here is somewhat awkward and wooden on occasion, with anachronistic notions to boot (at one point Elizabeth thinks of her father’s “gender bias” and Joseph says that it’s possible Elizabeth is “being played”). Yet I can’t deny the charm of the general prose. Like Elizabeth’s spunkiness, it nudged me along and made me like it more and more.
Elizabeth and Joseph obviously have much in common, between their desire to help the working classes, their strong business heads, their lack of interest in society parties, and the losses of their mothers. While Joseph had a perfectly functional childhood and has a loving relationship with his father, they’ve both experienced personal dysfunction and are massively wary of romance; naturally they are made for one another. It’s as clear to the readers as day that they belong together, and they function with heart-tugging tenderness in each other’s presence. Thus all of the conflict has to come from outside of the romance.
That conflict comes entirely from Edward, who is an ogre in spite of the novel’s attempt at humanizing him. It’s hard to forgive a man who bullied his wife to death and he behaves like an autocratic beast for so much of the time it’s hard to believe in his softer side. Much better is Joseph’s father, who has anger, regret, selfishness, but also tenderness and humanity on his side. Elsewhere, clever secretary Esther is clearly going to be our next heroine; I’m rather interested in seeing how her story might turn out. Lillian is written as a bit of a secular saint, and her murder is a detail that exists as a scar for Joseph to overcome. While it is a critical part of his character, as a plot point it’s useless to have her murder be unsolved if it’s not going to lead somwhere. If she had died accidentally or in childbirth, his guilt would have been as credible and more worthwhile.
It’s the last half of the novel that causes the whole enterprise to come tumbling off the rails and the stock clichés truly go into overdrive. When it comes time for a major conflict to rise in Elizabeth and Joseph’s relationship, I absolutely didn’t buy that Elizabeth – knowing of her father’s emotional brutality – wouldn’t have done what Joseph suggests he’s done, and that when Joseph subsequently would fall for the man’s blandishments. After Elizabeth and Joseph’s relationship turns romantic, she suddenly goes from verbally sparring with Edward to literally running in the other direction when he enters her carefully-constructed common woman’s social brunch. The woman was positively fearless in the first half of the novel – once she has love to fight for she shouldn’t start to crumble!
The Mistress of Pennington’s first half is engaging and interesting, and the middle stretch is fine. If only the ending had carried that momentum to a worthy conclusion.
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