The story starts some time in the early 1870s with the Langtons, a middle-class family living somewhere off the Fulham Road, London. Amy Langton is one of several siblings, an awkard 17-year old given to closeting herself away with books, spilling ink, and worrying the family by her ambition to be a doctor. Under her pillow she keeps a skull which, embarrassingly, is brought out by the family dog and dropped on the carpet when a friend of the family, Vivian Lester, is visiting. Lester has nearly everything going for him: orphaned at 24, he owns an estate at 'Baron's Cleve', is rich, handsome, erudite and charming (they all call him The Immaculate). But to Amy his views on women are anathema; he holds that:
The ideal woman is a being whose weakness is her strength, in whom feeling replaces intellect, meekness and refinement power. who should be a rest to her husband by her freedom from toil, a strength to him by the appeal of her weakness, a joy to him by her freedom from sorrow.
Amy's chief inspiration is her intellectual friend Louisa Stanley, a governess at White How, the small private finishing school by Lake Windermere that Amy attends. Louisa, having received an inheritance, is able to finance her own medical studies, and on leaving school at 18, Amy is determined to do likewise. The Langtons dislike the idea, but her older stepbrother Steven (the head of the family, as Mr Langton is dead) convinces them they should indulge her until what they see as a whim passes, so she moves in with Louisa. She spends a summer vacation at Steven's home, also in Baron's Cleve, where she has long and droll conversations with Vivian about life, gender and politics (he calls her "dear pythoness" and "dear prophetess"). Eventually he asks her to marry him: "Let me be your knight; let me rescue you". She says that she would rather not be rescued, and they part on sad terms.
Five years later,Vivian is in the Riviera near the town of Col Apri, and by accident runs into Amy; she is in charge of a party of invalids convalescing at a nearby pension (one of them is Louise, now a qualified doctor but suffering ill-health from overwork; another is Lettice Marshall, a family friend). Vivian's own circumstances have changed; he is now guardian to a 5-year-old Italian girl, Angela, the daughter of a deceased artist friend. Although on his way home to England, he decides to stay in the area for a while. As Vivian and Amy are walking, they run into Lettice, who falls and makes a show of hurting her leg. During the subsequent weeks at the pension, she flirts with Vivian, deliberately appealing to his knight-and-rescuer fantasy, until he falls in love. Amy, looking on as she tends to the increasingly ailing Louise, is despondent.
Vivian, forced to make a brief return to England, entrusts little Angela and his dog Nep to Amy's care. While he's away, there's an incident: the boisterous Angela accidentally jostles Lettice, who boxes her ear. In retaliation, Angela bites Lettice, and the protective Nep goes for her as well; Amy gets bitten by Nep while restraining him. On Vivian's return, Lettice gives a very airbrushed account of the incident, omitting her own role, and Vivian is all for having Nep put down - until the full story is revealed. Vivian is taken aback at Lettice's capacity for deceit, but at that moment the news of his engagement to Lettice breaks at the pension, and he is dragged along with the general celebration by the multifarious international guests. Their remaining time in the Riviera is considerably frosty, worsened by Vivian's realisation that Lettice doesn't like Angela.
Back in England, relations between Vivian and Lettice deteriorate further. While he realises more and more how much he cares for Angela, Lettice wants nothing to do with her. Looking for sympathy, he goes to visit Amy, and is depressed when she brushes off his hint at his relationship problems, and also when he spots congratulatory flowers on the table. She explains that they concern her engagement, which he assumes to mean marriage, further depressing him. They talk at cross-purposes until she reveals that it is actually her engagement as Assistant Surgeon at the New Hospital for Women.
Five years pass. Amy is consulting physician with her own practice, and she is among the few of her friends and family neither married nor betrothed; even the now-dying Louisa is engaged. Vivian, now a respected Member of Parliament, is also single, in a lukewarm engagement to Lettice, who has been briefly engaged to the serial philanderer Charlie Lovelace. It is 1879, and Amy is in the public gallery of the Houses of Parliament listening to a debate over the repeal of the Breach of Promise Act. The MP for Dalesbury - Vivian - gives an eloquent and evidently guilt-driven speech on selfishness and fickleness of men in their dealings with women. Amy realises she loves him. After giving the speech,Vivian goes to the Marshall household and, helped along by the presence of Charlie Lovelace, who is flirting with Lettice, makes the break from their engagement. A month later, he runs into Amy when he is visiting Baron's Cleve and proposes marriage again. Suspecting it to be on the rebound, she refuses.
Some months later, Amy is driving home after dining at the Langton house when she sees the light of a major fire in the city. Her brother, visiting from Australia, wants to see it, so they drive there and find it to be the burning mansion of Lord Loughborough, Vivian's uncle. A man - we guess it to be Vivian - appears at a balcony, lowering a child to safety. The firemen throw up a rope, but Vivian is knocked down by falling timber. Suddenly Amy runs out through the crowd and climbs the rope to the balcony, lowering the semi-conscious Vivian to safety before jumping down herself. The two, bruised and burned, don't meet again until they've recovered. Vivian proposes a third time, admitting he has been "a hide-bound prejudiced ass" about women's roles, and Amy accepts. "If the marriage proved a happy one ..." the novel concludes, "... no authentic record is as yet discoverable".
An early work?
This is an interesting novel in a number of ways, particularly in its break from plain romance/melodrama in favour of a clear and (to the modern reader) positive polemical intent in tackling issues of women's emancipation. Maxwell Gray (Mary Tuttiett) was a known supporter of suffrage, and a signatory to a petition in favour of the Woman Suffrage Bill in 1910. That said, there are oddities, easiest explained by quoting Hilda Gregg's 1898 review to the effect that the book appears not to be a mature work, but written in the 1870s:
... we still incline to the belief that it was written at the period of which it treats, and for some reason or other withheld from publication until the present time. Colour is given to this hypothesis by the asides in which the author indulges on such subjects as golf and bicycling, Zola and Ibsen (the Scandinavian playwright is introduced as a novelist, by the way), and the closure, which have all the appearance of being interpolated to bring the book up to date; while the triumphant "Fulfilled in 1897," as a footnote to a prophetic passage referring to a parliamentary debate, would, we hope, be impossible in the case of a prediction uttered after the fact.
This leads to the most astounding scene in the book, and one which is apparently intended to be taken seriously. The Immaculate is alone on the balcony, which firemen and spectators are alike afraid to approach from below. They have thrown him a rope, but he is too much injured to use it. Then, "with a wild cry of 'With him or for him,' a tall young woman dashed through hosestreams, policemen, and firemen, caught the rope, swarmed up it like a cat, and reached the tottering balcony in a few seconds." We have never seen a cat swarm up a rope; but far be it from us to limit the powers of that ingenious animal, or of Amy, who "could tie herself into knots, and do wonderful things on the horizontal bar." Once on the balcony, she fastens the rope round the Immaculate, lifts him up and over the rail, and lets him down, then leaps to the ground, knocking down a fireman in her fall. The result to the fireman is not stated, but we fear that it must have been serious; the result to Amy is that she marries the Immaculate. We regret to say that he urges her to this step with the plea, "I am your Frankenstein. You have given me life"; but perhaps as a married woman she rescued sufficient time from her professional avocations to correct her husband's quotations before they appeared in his parliamentary speeches. "Amy's husband," we are told, "never forgot the cry that rang through the roaring flames surrounding him of 'With him or for him!'" Probably not; nor probably did his acquaintances ever allow him to forget it. As for the firemen, policemen, and other casual auditors, they must have felt that for once a bit of Adelphi melodrama had wandered into real life.
The astonishing youthfulness of this scene is a strong support to our theory (save that we can scarcely imagine a mature writer allowing it to pass as anything but a skit), but there are a good many touches in the book which remind us that the Maxwell Gray we know best possesses what the eighteenth century would have called "an agreeable rallying turn." Still, as we have seen, the funniest things in the book are those which to all appearance are not intended to be so.
- The Medical Woman in Fiction, Hilda Gregg, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, July 1898.
I don't disagree with the "early work" theory. Maxwell Gray is an author who so regularly incorporates her environs into her novels (a trait called in writing-crit circles Dischism) that the works often provide leads to where she can be placed historically. In the case of Sweethearts and Friends, the fictional White How school is highly identifiable as Langrigge House in Bowness, a small private school where Maxwell Gray was working as a governess, aged 24, in 1871. The detailed descriptions of the place strongly suggest that at least that section of the novel was written very close to the time Maxwell Gray was there.