Jane and Mary Findlater
Alexandra Hope is a 30-ish unmarried woman living with her father in the village of Crossriggs, near Edinburgh. When her older sister Matilda is widowed, she and her 5 children return to Crossriggs to live at home. The two sisters are close, but couldn't be more different. Matilda is a bit of a doormat, and rarely expresses her own thoughts. In fact, Matilda generally agreed with everyone about everything, even if she happened to hold another opinion... (p. 35). Alex is strong and independent, and has rejected proposals rather than using marriage to achieve financial security. Recognizing that the new arrivals will stretch the family's ability to make ends meet, she finds employment in daily "read aloud" sessions with a Admiral Cassilis, an elderly, wealthy blind man.
Supporting the two sisters are a strong cast of village locals, many of whom are quite amusing. For example, Alex and Matilda's father is a vegetarian, which from the tone of the novel, must have been quite unusual in Victorian England. And Mr. Hope (known to many as "Old Hopeless") takes it a step further by declaring himself a "fruitarian" and living off garden apples past their prime. He engages in humorous attempts to educate house guests by subjecting them to his favorite foods. And then there is Miss Bessie Reid, a spinster of a certain age:
Miss Bessie Reid -- good woman! -- was skilled in all the little arts that make home hideous. There was a specimen of her handiwork at every turn -- a painted tambourine here, a stark water-colour there, whilst miniature animals in crockery seemed to crawl on every ledge. ... Taste, I suppose, is only a constant delicate expression of opinion, and Miss Bessie's opinions -- poor dear! -- must have been singularly confused. (p. 141)
On her first visit to the Admiral, Alex meets his grandson Van, who is new to Crossriggs. Van is several years younger than Alex, but he is immediately attracted to her. She is oblivious to his attentions, first because of the age difference, and second because Alex herself has strong affections for Robert Maitland. Maitland is a long-standing family friend and the attraction is mutual. He is, however, married. Both Maitland and Alex take great pains to conceal their affections, even from each other. And yet Alex is both sufficiently devoted and independent to rebuff Van's advances. As the family's fortunes ebb and flow, Alex finds additional opportunities to earn income through public readings, and teaching in town. Being the breadwinner for such a large family begins to take its toll. And even as Alex shows clear signs of stress and fatigue, the annoyingly helpless Matilda just "tut tuts" and lectures Alex, while doing absolutely nothing to help provide for the family.
On the surface, this novel appears to be focused on Alex's love interests: will she and Maitland find a way to get together? Will she choose Van? But by the end of this book, it's clear the Findlater sisters were exploring much more important points. What is more important: money, or loving relationships? Why do women feel they have to marry in order to be safe and secure? Can a woman have a career? Why is it so difficult for a woman to live independently in society? And even though women have made incredible strides since the publication of Crossriggs in 1908, we still don't have good answers to those questions. ( )