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Mary Cholmondeley. Inglezakis, Mara L.
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Mary Cholmondeley

By Mara Inglezakis

Mary Cholmondeley was born in 1859 at Hodnet, Shropshire, to the Reverend Richard Cholmondeley and his wife Emily (née Beaumont). With seven children exclusive of Mary, the Reverend Cholmondeley's salary was inadequate to admit of appropriate domestic help. So, from her teen years, the role of housekeeper and nurse consumed Cholmondeley's life at Hodnet and the various other places the family lived before returning to Shropshire on her father's appointment to the Hodnet Rectory. Cholmondeley was educated at home until she was sixteen, when her invalid mother became bedridden and Mary assumed all of her household and parish duties.

As her novels tell us obliquely (as in The Danvers Jewels (1886) and its sequel, Sir Charles Danvers (1889) and overtly (as in Red Pottage (1899)), Cholmondeley's job as "daughter at home" approximated the Victorian women's nightmare satirized in Bleak House's Cady Jellyby. Life at Hodnet told on her physically and emotionally for her entire life.

Coeval with her expanded "home duties," Cholmondeley developed a case of chronic asthma that the insufficiently-heated rectory exacerbated. Cholmondeley would winter at various sea-side resorts near the end of her life in an effort to mitigate her asthma, but, in her youth, her condition would keep her largely house-bound during the winter, away from her well-connected aunt and uncle's Condover Hall and from London during the season. Cholmondeley biographer Carolyn Oulton notes that the author relied on the parties at Condover and the winter balls in town in order to craft the carefully articulated social scenes that make her novels so enchanting.

She was able to socialize on some occasions, and to good effect--her aunt Victoria introduced her to novelists Anne Thackery Ritchie and Rhoda Broughton, who would introduce her to George Bentley, her publisher until the Bentley firm was purchased by Macmillan's. And Cholmondeley's mental and physical health did improved when she moved with her father and sisters to London in 1896 where Mary was able to entertain with her sisters in her own right; she and her youngest sister, Victoria, moved between Suffolk and London by 1919, after their father died.

Even after she moved to London, Cholmondeley's daily rounds, compounded by asthma, were not conducive to writing. Cholmondeley dramatizes the untenability of her situation in her most famous novel, Red Pottage. At the emotional climax, authoress Hester--who has been living with her brother and sister-in-law because she is unmarried--returns home to find that her relations have immolated her chef d'oeuvre as a lesson that she should devote herself more fully to "home duties." Hester falls into a fever-fit after the fashion of Marianne Dashwood. Cholmondeley herself was no stranger to the prostration she describes in Hester: indeed, she seems to have suffered from depression and anxiety, culminating in an episode of nervous exhaustion for which her physician, Victor Horsley, prescribed her a rest-cure--the treatment modality immortalized by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." Cholmondeley's own sutee as surrogate mother, nurse, and housekeeper also contributed to, and was exacerbated by, the fact that she never married (her diaries record but one brief romance in her early 20s). Coming out of a middling gentry in which "daughters at home" were expected to earn their keep within the home--working outside of it was not respectable--Cholmondeley may not have felt as if she had other options. She never took work outside the home (I include writing as a kind of work done "at home") until the dawn of World War I, when she found work as a secretary.

Cholmondeley died in 1925 at Kensington, having published 13 novels.

For a detailed and engaging look at Cholmondeley's life, see Caroline Oulton's Let the Flowers Go: A Life of Mary Cholmondeley (2009).

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