My Classics Club Spin: The Charwoman’s Daughter by James Stephens

Doc2“A little over a decade before James Joyce would publish his monstrous, groundbreaking Ulysses, Stephens’ novel about a sixteen-year old girl called Mary depicted the slums of early 20th century Dublin with colorful, imaginative language. The Charwoman’s Daughter contrasts the pains of poverty with simple pleasures, and it reminds the reader that language can always transcend the ugliness of daily life by painting a more poetic and beautiful landscape.”
—Qwiklit.com, 20 Classics You’ve Never Heard Of

My copy of The Charwoman’s Daughter is a small, saddle-stitched booklet with a bright orange cover. I found it among the books I inherited from my aunt, but it is also available on Australia’s Project Gutenberg Website. It’s a quick read; if you copy the text into a Word file, you end up with only 65 pages. But before you go ahead and download it, let me say that there’s a good reason why this is a “classic you have never heard of.”

The booklet tells the story of Mary Makebelieve, who must have one of the most obviously meaningful names in literature. She and her overprotective mother live in a very poor part of Dublin. Her mother cleans houses; Mary walks around Dublin every day. At night, Mary listens to her mother imagine the grand life they will have when her brother, Mary’s uncle, returns from America a wealthy man. (He’s been gone and unheard from for 20 years.) One day, a policeman starts talking to Mary, and the two start walking together. When he finds out that Mary is poor, he talks down to her and she stops seeing him. He proposes marriage; she declines. He leaves; the Makebelieves inherit lots of money from the wealthy brother/uncle. The end. What?!

Mary was a nice enough character, on the brink of adolescence, ready to explore her surroundings. She is sheltered, shy, and overwhelmed by the presence of the policeman, who has some odd notions about beating a woman into obedience. At least I think that he had these notions; he was such a vague character that it might be possible that this detail was meant figuratively, not literally. Thankfully, the policeman disappeared before I felt compelled to contemplate him any further. And then the Makebelieves become rich, and rather than stand in Mary’s way, the narrator tips his hat to her and moves away, because he has “urgent calls elsewhere.” So I didn’t feel compelled to contemplate mother and daughter any further either.

What an odd and unsatisfactory story! There are books that leave me wondering what the point of it all was, but with this one, my wonder was infused with incredulity. I don’t know what to make of it. Yes, there were parts that used “colorful, imaginative language,” but they were rare. If you imagine A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as being an elaborate oil painting, then this was a rough pencil sketch of a background figure shrouded in fog.

If I simply, completely missed what this story is about, please tell me. I’d love to know, because right now, I am wondering why anyone would ever publish something like this. And I am not usually this judgmental….

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6 comments

  1. Disappointing that your latest spin book was so unrewarding, but consider it a public service!

    You read this book so that none of the rest of us have to – I for one say thank you 🙂

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