Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband…
About the Book:
A charming and witty novel, set in a small country town in 1919.
‘When Adelaide Nightingale, Louisa Worthington, Maggie O’Connell and Pearl McCleary threw caution to the winds in the most brazen way imaginable, disgrace was bound to follow.’
It’s September 1919. The war is over, and everyone who was going to die from the flu has done so. But there’s a shortage of husbands and women in strife will flounder without a male to act on their behalf.
And in the southern New South Wales town of Prospect, four ladies bereft of men have problems that threaten to overwhelm them.
Beautiful Louisa Worthington, whose dashing husband died for King and Country, is being ruined by the debts he left behind.
Young Maggie O’Connell, who lost her mother in childbirth and her father to a redhead, is raising her two wayward brothers and fighting for land she can’t prove is hers.
Adelaide Nightingale has a husband, but he’s returned from the war in a rage and is refusing to tackle the thieving manager of their famous family store.
Pearl McCleary, Adelaide’s new housekeeper, must find her missing fiancé before it’s too late and someone dies.
Thank God these desperate ladies have a solution: a part-time husband who will rescue them all. To find him, they’ll advertise. To afford him, they’ll share.
Jane Austen meets Rosalie Ham in this utterly delightful new novel from Barbara Toner. Even the title, Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband, speaks for itself in terms of the story. Yes, these four women do pool their resources to hire a part-time husband to share, and yes, the results are as outrageous as you might expect. Particularly when you consider that at the outset, these four women aren’t even friends. In fact, with the exception of Pearl, they each harbour rather intense long term grudges against each other. It’s wonderful to see their understanding and consideration for each other grow over the course of the story.
Barbara Toner’s style is sharply honest and appeals to me greatly. There isn’t a single sentence within this novel that isn’t infused with her unique brand of insightful observation. It’s such a rare talent, and short of gushing on and on about her brilliance, I’m probably incapable of doing this novel justice within this review. You should just read it for yourself. As soon as possible. You’ll love every minute because her words are sprinkled with gold dust.
But what’s it really about? Yes, there’s plenty of humour and mayhem throughout, more than one mystery and more than one instance of the ridiculous, but Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband is by no means a fluffy funny story about four women vying for the attention of one man. Far from it. At the heart of this story is the magnification of inequality; an era in society where women were encouraged to be helpless, admired for being helpless, and scorned for showing the slightest bit of initiative beyond the domestic realm. For women who were widows or unmarried – or even married but with a husband who had checked out to some degree – they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Women were quite simply not taken seriously – unless of course there was a war on and no men available, but after the war, it was back to expected helplessness. So, what was a woman in this predicament to do? No husband, no father, no brother; well, you hired a part-time husband to handle all of the things you were barred from handling on account of your sex. The fact that he turned out to be a little bit useless was beside the point because as this very telling statement points out:
‘His purpose, as things panned out, had been not to do what the ladies couldn’t, but to show the ladies what they might achieve on their own.’
The characterisation within this novel is superb. There are all sorts, warts and all, within Prospect. And while our four ladies shine the brightest, there are plenty of others that steal the spotlight from time to time. Another winning aspect of this story is the way in which Barbara Toner brought a small post war Australian town to life with such realistic vigour. I was utterly convinced of the authenticity of Prospect. Far from stereotypical, this town and its inhabitants rang true to me for the era. Like I mentioned in the beginning, think Jane Austen – particularly Lady Susan and Pride and Prejudice – meeting Rosalie Ham, and you’ll begin to form an impression about what to expect with this novel. But please don’t be mislead, this comparison really is only for impressionistic purposes as Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband stands on its own two feet steady and sure. I feel quite certain this one is destined for that elusive ‘it’s going to be a classic’ elevation.
I’d like to thank Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband. I enjoyed it immensely and won’t be able to stop recommending it for a very long time – if ever!
About the Author:
Barbara Toner is an acclaimed author and columnist who has written extensively about the lot of women in all its manifestations, with all its glorious and less glorious intricacies, both in fiction and non-fiction. She has three daughters and divides her time between England and the far south coast of New South Wales.