Rachel Gray: A Tale Founded on Fact by Julia Kavanagh is the first release from Hanover Press, which aims to re-publish Victorian classics in quality physical format. The novel has a new introduction, notes, and supplementary material.
Rachel Gray first appeared in 1855, when the prolific and already popular Kavanagh was thirty-one; she had been writing since the age of twenty, after her father abandoned wife and daughter. She spent almost all her early life in France, until she and her mother moved to London in 1844, and stayed for over ten years, supported only by Julia's busy pen. Many of her novels have a French setting, but Rachel Gray is a tale of London's working poor. The subtitle is important: Kavanagh, in her preface, says, "I have invented nothing in the character of Rachel Gray, and the sorrows of Richard Jones are not imaginary sorrows." She wants to show educated, wealthy readers the spiritual richness that may be found in lives they might scorn.
Seamstress Rachel Gray and her stepmother have long ago been left by father and husband, like Kavanagh herself. The scene opens on their poor street and shabby house, zooming in on one bright splash: a pot of yellow crocuses. The flowers introduce us to Rachel, who is marvelling over how they close at day's end — "the Lord has taught you," she whispers to them. To her stepmother, she exclaims, "Now do look at the creatures, mother!" But Mrs Gray just laughs at her for calling them creatures.
Photo by Rene Hering (CCO Public Domain).
We meet two apprentice girls, and then bossy Mrs Brown, who arrives with a newspaper, recommending "... third column, second page, first article, 'The Church in a Mess.'" This is a clever touch. The story is set at the end of the 1840s — there's a reference to the tenth of April, day of the Chartists' march in 1848. The Church of England certainly was "in a mess," with dispute between factions at fever pitch. Newman and others had recently become Roman Catholic, confirming Evangelical suspicion that the High Church party was full of covert "Papists"; the Gorham case, highlighting disagreement over baptismal doctrine, filled newspapers. Rachel, however, attends no church. Kavanagh (herself a Roman Catholic) has given her a faith deeper than denominational or factional squabbles. She is simply a Christian, and Jesus "her friend, her counsellor, her refuge."
Rachel has a "double life." Most see only a tall, thin, sallow woman looking older than her twenty-six years, hard-working, and kind. We see the Rachel who spends her little free time in a back room, alone, deep in thought. She reads slowly, and little, unlike the avid consumers of the mid-century publishing boom, who devour "histories written faster than time flies, novels by the dozen, essays, philosophic and political books…" They, says the narrator, cannot commune with God, or their own hearts; but Rachel can. "And now, if she moves through this story, thinking much and doing little, you know why."
She may seem to do little, but it counts a great deal. Her unobtrusive kindness touches the apprenticed girls. She finds joy in small moments, despite hardship and lack of sympathetic understanding. She endures her stepmother's harsh tongue, and Mrs Brown's cruelty. But her father's rejection is too hard to bear; for most of the book, she cannot accept it. She yearns for his love, watches him at work, bravely confronts him, in vain.
By contrast, apprentice Mary is the idol of her own father, Richard Jones. He has always dreamt of keeping a shop; a timely small legacy, and empty premises near Rachel's house, tempt him to take the plunge. The story of The Teapot is told with humour, but also with compassion for Jones and all like him, to whom every shilling counts.
"Old Joe's," Sol Eytinge's realisation of the rag
shop in A Christmas Carol (1868 edition).
The shop, with its "pots of Scotch marmalade" in the window, is one of several in the book. There's the rag and bottle establishment, "with its shabby black doll dangling like a thief over the doorway," and the second-hand ironmonger's, where "rusty goods of every description kept grim company to tattered books and a few old pictures, that had contracted an iron look in their vicinity." Such workaday details give a vivid realism; we also learn the sums of money involved in Mr Jones's business, and watch Madame Rose feeding onion soup to a "poor idiot girl." We see Rachel assailed by drunks, having her pocket picked, and finding, when late for supper, that "the beer had become flat and worthless" and "puss had got up on the table and walked off with [her] poloney."
Not all readers liked these homely touches, however, as shown by the interesting contemporary reviews included in this edition. The London Press says, "..this time Miss Kavanagh has pitched her key too low, and…in her anxiety to be real she has introduced sordid facts, which detract from what otherwise might have been a pretty and affecting story." However, The Athenaeum finds the details "are made beautiful" by Rachel's "gentle, single-minded obedience," and the Scotsman says they are "invested with the sacred dignity of suffering." If some readers thought literature shouldn't stoop to the ugliness of poverty, many more were moved by Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. After the Chartist agitation, and the "hungry Forties," there was in the 1850s a growing sympathy for the plight of the poor, helped by real-life accounts like Henry Mayhew's interviews with flower girls, bird sellers, and other struggling characters of the streets.
Reviewers had different reactions to Rachel herself, too. Many thought the portrayal charming, touching, and inspiring. But the Illustrated Times finds this book inferior to Kavanagh's earlier Nathalie, "with its strong description and Jane Eyre-ish situations," and the "strong, nervous, energetic writing" that qualifies her to succeed the recently dead Charlotte Brontë. The reviewer considers this story "unnatural," and Rachel "one of those dreadfully resigned persons ... perpetually abused, and cuffed, and put upon in every conceivable manner ... who ... find consolation in a quotation."
Some modern readers will agree. Her story is engaging, and one admires her kindness, her faith, and, perhaps above all, her resilient hope — but sometimes her endurance is just too saintly. One of the quotations she is consoled by is "He whom He loveth, He chasteneth," a difficult theology then as now. A father's rejection, a sister's or a daughter's death, all must be accepted as God's will; we should not set our hearts on any human love, or life. Even those used to Victorian moralising might balk here. But Kavanagh knows the message is hard; her characters do balk. Richard Jones makes Rachel a bitter speech, ending, "... a rich man steps in, and I am beggared — and you tell me God is good—mind, I don't say he ain't — but is he good to me?" Rachel cannot articulate to him her firm belief in God's love, and he is to be further tested; but slowly, under her influence, he finds a small measure of peace. She is like the pot of crocuses, showing how to do as the Lord has taught, a splash of brightness in gloomy surroundings.
The end notes are interesting and helpful, if sometimes superfluous — do we really need to be told who Mary and Martha are? Other references, however, surely merit a comment. Is poloney a sausage, like "baloney?" Will readers recognise the hymn "Old Hundredth?"" Or know that "Richard Jones had veneration large" refers to phrenology?
The book is attractively produced on good bright paper. There are some typographical errors, though, including "bum" for "burn," "lore" for "love," "axe" for "are," "other's" for "father's," as well as some missing punctuation.
In the story itself, a couple of repetitions and inconsistencies make one wonder if Kavanagh delivered the book too soon, pressed as she was to earn. Nonetheless, Rachel Gray's poignant story is told in a fluid natural style, and gives us fascinating glimpses of everyday life. Especially successful is the rhythm, brio, and often humour of the dialogue.
The book also prompts interest in Julia Kavanagh's other work, fiction and non-fiction. Grace Lee, for example, is surprisingly different, though published the same year; full of lively talk, with an elegant social scene and a wealthy heroine. An extract from this versatile writer's English Women of Letters is also included in this Hanover Press edition. Future titles from this press will surely be of interest.
Kavanagh, Julia. Rachel Gray: A Tale Founded on Fact. Hanover Press, 2021. Available offsite here.
Created 7 April 2021