A Delightful Middlebrow Novel:  Doris Langley Moore’s “Not at Home”

Doris Langley Moore

Doris Langley Moore’s books have long been out-of-print.  One wonders why:  she was a fascinating writer and even founded a fashion museum.   She was a fashion historian, a collector of costumes, a Lord Byron scholar, and a translator of ancient Greek poetry.  

She also wrote very good novels.

Her charming 1948 novel, Not at Home, has recently been reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow.  It is brilliant, funny, and bingeable, with a likable spinster heroine and an utterly believable plot.  And you will be rooting for the polite heroine all the way, though her too good manners sometimes get in the way of life.

 The heroine, Miss MacFarren, a middle-aged botanical writer, must rent out part of her London house because of post-war money problems.  And, because she is so polite, she takes her bossy friend Harriet’s advice and rents to Mrs. Antonia Bankes, a manipulative American who will agree to anything–and then go her own way.

Miss MacFarren is a complicated, independent heroine who has never had to cope with a roommate, let alone a tenant.  Although  Bankes obsequiously admires Miss MacFarren’s rare botanical prints and valuable mint-condition collectibles,  she does not take care of them.  She has wild parties, breaks valuables, hides the broken pieces in the trash, burns a beautiful satinwood table with a hot iron–and poor Miss MacFarren can neither sleep nor concentrate because of the noise.  

Moore writes of Mrs. Bankes,

For instance, when she spilt a bottle of ink on the hall carpet, she first tried to conceal the accident by placing a rug over the stain, then when it was inevitably discovered, mentioned with perfect insouciance that she was sending a message to a ‘little man’, highly recommended by a friend, who specialized in removing inkstains from carpets. No such person having turned up, Miss MacFarren asked some days later whether he was to be expected; Mrs. Bankes looked blank for a moment, and, as unconvincingly as a child whose face is sticky with the jam it denies having touched, answered that her letter must have been lost in the post. After a further delay, Miss MacFarren enquired for the carpet-cleaner’s address, so that she might save trouble by getting in touch with him herself, and the reply was so palpably evasive as to leave no room for doubt that he had been a fiction.

Moore has the psychology just right:  Miss MacFarren has such good manners that she cannot evict the horrible Mrs. Bankes outright. And Mrs. Bankes acts charming and slightly befuddled, so she always gets her way (especially with her absent husband, when he occasionally pops into London for a week).  Miss MacFarren is reluctant to confront Mrs. Bankes in front of her friends, who are always there.  Mrs. MacFarren doesn’t care to be alone.  And Miss MacFarren has a hard time believing that anyone can be as shallow as Mrs. Bankes.

Her first impression of Mrs. Bankes’s friends was that they bore as close a resemblance to one another as the chorus of a musical comedy. They were all fashionably dressed, alternately flippant and gushing in manner, and ‘rushed off their feet’, ‘in a tearing hurry’, and ‘frantically busy’ doing nothing, apparently, but meeting one another for purposes of amusement.  

Fortunately, Miss MacFarren’s nephew, Mory, a movie director, and his friend, a young actress, appreciate her. She has heard Mrs. Bankes and her friends joke about her, and has cried over it.  Such a pleasure to get out of party house and hear who you are in the real world once again.

 It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of classics and literary fiction, or a defiant reader of pop fiction.  This is definitely a treat, well-written, intelligent, and fun. 

4 thoughts on “A Delightful Middlebrow Novel:  Doris Langley Moore’s “Not at Home””

  1. Ellen has had a problem posting her comment, so she sent it to me. Ellen says,

    “It sounds like a wonderful novel. Is it a Virago imprint? it is the sort of thing they would have published at one point. It’s funny how the genuine miseries of someone can form a center of a satisfying novel. I think it might be because they are fleeting — after all, Miss MacFarren can eject Mrs Bankes’s when the lease is up. Also that we love the heroine and bond with her. I have a dream of writing a book about spinsters, widows, and women who have lived outside marriage with a man and now live alone preferably. I enjoyed reading this.”

    1. The Furrowed Middlebrow imprint does remind me of Virago. I love Miss MacFarren, who is so intelligent but clueless about how to deal with Mrs. Bankes. Somehow it makes it more poignant that she is a spinster–self-sufficient (until now) but unworldly. The characters are very strongly-depicted.

      I want to read your book aoubt spinsters, widows, etc.

  2. It’s been on my list since it came out. I’ve been buying the Furrowed Middlebrow books bit by bit. I love the covers.

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