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Sylvia Scarlett by Compton Mackenzie



“Sylvia Scarlett”, one of the continuations in Mackenzie's “Sinister Street” saga, prompts a little backstory-telling. The eponymous heroine appeared in the first book of the series as self-appointed guardian of Lily Haden, whom Michael Fane is in love with. Roughly at the same age, Sylvia and Lily are a couple of prozzies. Having baldly stated the fact, there is some further qualification of Ms. Scarlett's character: neither she nor Lily have much of the street-walking hooker in them. As Sylvia has already said to Fane (it is repeated here), “Money is necessary sometimes, you know.” These two educated and cultured young women inhabit the Imagist, Edwardian London of Ezra Pound (parodied here as the Languedoc poetester “Hezekiah Penny”). The company they keep is that particularly Kensington blend of low life fraudsters, single mammas, pseudo artists and young men of the Oxbridge set. It is a sort of West London version of the Bloomsbury group, except that for politics you should substitute religion; and for theatre, music hall.

Considered extremely daring at the time of publication (1918 for “THE EARLY LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SYLVIA SCARLETT”, to give its full title) this saga can sensibly be compared with contemporary works by James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. Whereby Mackenzie was adept at sailing as close as possible to the moral wind of the day, he managed to benefit from the publicity stirred up by outrage. At the same time he avoided the censure of the law without being shunned by the book-buying (if not the book-borrowing) public. In short, his tomes sold like hot cakes in a society increasingly obsessed by sex.

Whereas the adventures of “Sylvia Scarlett” are not as a poetically or lengthily written out as those of Michael Fane, her complete life up to the age of thirty is emcompassed, with much glossed over. The scenes with Michael and Lily, for example, which take place as the characters are in their early twenties, form only a short (if crucial) part of this narrative. And to what extent we are given a fully rounded, believable portrait of this young woman is debatable. When loosely filmed in 1935, with a tom-boyish Katherine Hepburn (as Syvia) and the super-dapper Cary Grant (as Jimmy Monkley), cross-dressing was used to much stronger effect than here. There is an obvious homosexual interpretation but, like a tamer version of Evelyn Waugh, Mackenzie merely dangles the possibility in front of his audience; for instance, at one point telling us that Sylvia's hands are masculine.

Sylvia's clear protoypes are Fanny Hill and Becky Sharp (the latter also filmed in 1935). She is her own woman from the start, and while she frequently throws herself on the kindness of strangers, she always manages to rise above the kind of squalor normally associated with frausters amd common prostitutes. This is despite not being a great beauty herself.

Still as a teenager, she is married (to an Oxford man) and divorced. She frequently walks out on money and prosperity because foremost in her mind is being true to herself and never to be groomed (“developed” is the word often deployed here) to suit another's whims. This doesn't stop her from grooming others, most notably Lily and Arthur Madden. The reader is treated at fairly regular intervals to solliloquies in which she, in something like a stream of consciousness, sums up her situation. For example, in a long paragraph beginning with the words “I must be getting old...” (she is twenty eight at the time) she compares herself, favourably, to a drunk, because, “drunkenness is the apotheosis of the individual”.  

Later on, when facing the imminent prospect of marriage she tells a close friend that really she is no feminist, “...Personally I think that the Turks are wiser about women than we are; I think the majority of women are only fit for the harem and I’m not sure that the majority wouldn’t be much happier under such conditions. The incurable vanity of man, however, has removed us from our seclusion to admire his antics, and it’s too late to start shutting us up in a box now. Woman never thought of equality with man until he put the notion into her head.”

Having started life in France (she is only half English) she spends her teens in England then travels in Italy, Spain, Morocco, South America and the USA. By her mid-twenties, she seems to have given up the life of the working girl and turned instead to the family tradition of musical theatre as both her principal means of living and her means of fulfilling a creative urge. Throughout these novels we are given to believe the borderlines between fraud, musical theatre and prostitution are very thin indeed. Mackenzie himself grew up in a theatrical family, and the fame of his sister Fay Compton still survives in living memory at the time I write (2013). Presumably he knew his subject far better than he dares equate us.

The book abounds in piquant adventures. At one point Sylvia becomes the moll of an Argentine gangster with whom she escapes from a shoot-out in a bordello. At the same time, we are asked to believe her relationship with Carlos Morera is platonic and that he showers her with valuable presents (setting her up for several years to come) for the mere pleasure of escorting her round town.

Mackenzie does not subject Sylvia to the thorns of her many rose beds. Whatever ups and downs his heroine endures barely scratch the surface of this oh-so wise and cynical woman-child. And whenever she comes across characters whose fates are without her good fortune, she is able to look on with more sympathy than empathy. Concetta (a dancer) and Rodrigo (a guide) whom she meets in Granada, are in situations not unlike those she has been through herself. Yet as she is about to help them, one is abducted by a jealous lover while the other is fatally stabbed by a rival. Back in London she is shocked to hear that Jenny Pearl, the model of an artist friend, has been shot dead by her jealous husband. But this promises to be merely a plot device. In fact, Sylvia's character can be callous or even craven at times. For example when Jimmy Monkley, who took care of her after her father's suicide and who has been gaoled for fraud, comes out of prison to visit her, she flees for her life. At the time, she is riding high on the success of her musical show - but in horror of the past, overlooks the debt she owes him. Actually, survival instinct is in operation here and we can't blame Sylvia for shutting the trickster Monkley out. He was grooming her when she left him at the age of fifteen. But it convenient to be able to choose what you will of your past life, a luxury not afforded to most of the characters here, or in real life for that matter.

Even after her most crushing reversal (I won't reveal just what) Sylvia is able to dust herself off and, pocketing a timely windfall, escape from the consequences.

This is a story that does not end on the last page, though it says “THE END” in capital letters. Throughout this volume there are references to Miachael Fane and, who'd have guessed, it was followed up by “SYLVIA & MICHAEL - THE LATER ADVENTURES OF SYLVIA SCARLETT” in 1919, a book even shorter again. If there are diminishing returns in the series, more fool the reader (me, for example) hanging on in to the bittersweet end.



A note about religion: Sylvia, it is made plain from time to time, is a woman without religious faith. Mackenzie, however, cannot resist inserting a chapter mostly devoted to the pro- and anti- anglo-catholic schisms in the Church of England. He achieves this with skill and not a little entertainment à la Lurch in The Church. He even manages to get the non-believing Sylvia to come down on the side of his own pro-ritual views. The gauntlet thrown down by Joyce in "Portrait of the artist as a Young Man" is picked up.