Friday, May 6, 2011

Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau

Edition: Deerbrook (Penguin Classics)
Deerbrook was published in 1839 (in three volumes) and was Martineau's first serious work of fiction, having already made a name for herself as a journalist and social commentator. The novel met with lukewarm reviews, though George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte were among the novel's appreciators.

Having been recently orphaned, the two young women, Hester and Margaret Ibbotson, stay with their relations, the Grey's at Deerbrook. The two of them are from Birmingham, and are enamored with the beauty of the country landscape. The primary concerns of members of the village, however, seem to be local gossip. The girls' primary circle of first acquaintances include Mr. and Mrs. Grey, their daughter Sophia and son Sydney, Mr. and Mrs. Rowland and their children, Mrs. Enderby, Mrs. Rowland's mother, and Philip Enderby, Mrs. Rowland's brother and Mrs. Enderby's son, Mr. Hope, the doctor, and Miss Young, a governess. Mrs. Rowland is particularly malicious in her gossip, and generally does not get along with the Grey's because of they are religious "dissidents." Mr. Hope and Miss Young are distinguished from this crowd of people in that they seem to rise above the petty interests of the other villagers. In the early chapters there is an extended passage in which Miss Young reminisces in a manner of talking out loud, accepting her lot as a governess and limited pleasures because of her own position: once, she would have been accepted into society as someone's wife, but as a result of an accident, she had become lame and also lost her father. Miss Young, however, isn't bitter about her situation: instead, her acceptance has led her to embrace a marginal yet accepted position in Deerbrook society which has enabled her to live there and also retain a certain degree of independence. She delights, therefore, in observing the people around her in a deeper fashion than most. Margaret immediately takes to Miss Young and agrees to study German with her.

Eventually, both Mr. Hope and Mr. Enderby develop feelings for Margaret--Hope confesses his feelings to his brother Frank who is in India through a lengthy letter, and Enderby leaves a note for Margaret in the schoolroom. Miss Young shows the slightest hint of discomposure when she realizes that Enderby has feelings for Margaret; there was a time when he may have been hers before her fall and loss of her father. Meanwhile, Margaret and Hester continue to delight the people of Deerbrook, engaging in parties and teas. A freak accident in which Mr. Hope is thrown from his horse leaves him an invalid for a time, and the toll that this takes on Hester is seen by Margaret and others. Margaret and her sister have a candid conversation in which Hester reveals that she did not yet know how she felt about Mr. Hope until  discovering to herself how she felt after his accident. After Mr. Hope recovers, Mrs. Grey takes on the duties of matchmaker and points out to him how Hester has looked unwell with worry over him. Mr. Hope, though he is really in love with Margaret, feels pressured by expectations and, as the narrator gives, "he decided upon making the great mistake of his life," that is, to ask for Hester's hand in marriage. He asks Margaret's advice before doing so, and finding Margaret overjoyed on behalf of his sister, convinces himself that though he might not love Hester, she is certainly a noble and good choice for a wife in theory and that anyone should be proud to make her his wife.

Hester and Hope marry, and go on a brief honeymoon to Oxford. During that time, Margaret works to furnish their new home (she too will live with them) and spends some time with Maria. Among other things, the two women talk philosophically of love and the nature of marriage--Maria, in particular, has a rather startling understanding of true love as a kind of death for individuals, fraught with difficulty. When Hester and her new husband return, they settle into their new life as a married couple, giving their first dinner party. Soon, a rumor gets started in Deerbrook that Mr. Philip Enderby was engaged to a young woman named Miss Bruce, and had been so engaged for a long time. Margaret finds that she cannot take this news without a significant amount of discomposure, despite her notions of herself as being generally calm about the whole thing. In fact, though she didn't know it, she had been expecting that Enderby would one day ask her for marriage. Mr. Hope and Hester have their own troubles; because Mr. Hope voted for an unpopular candidate in the local election, many of his patients shunned him and he began to lose business. Hester met with cold attitudes from the local tradespeople, and loses her own composure. To make matters worse, rumors begin to circulate about Mr. Hope stealing bodies from graveyards in the name of science. As a result of all of these tensions, relations between Margaret and her sister also deteriorate a bit, though they both do much to try to prevent this from happening.

One day, Margaret falls into a frozen pond. Hope is too late to be among one of the men who pulled her out, but he arrives just as she was emerging from the pond and she sees the agony on his face, and witnesses his low cry, "My Margaret." His feelings for her rush back, but he soon suppresses them again. Eventually, things take a turn for the better when Philip comes to town and reveals that his connection to Miss Bruce was a full fabrication, likely by his own sister, Mrs. Rowland, who didn't want her own family marrying a relation of the Grey's, and poor relations at that. Philip chides Margaret for believing the rumor, but she says it is more that she believed that maybe he had never loved her in the first place and that she had been mistaken. The two reconcile and things look up for the time being. For Mr. Hope, however, troubles continue and culminate in a riot inspired largely by Mrs. Rowland's rumors about Hope. An unruly mob burns Mr. Hope's effigy, and destroy his property. Inside, Margaret, Hester, and the servants stand strong. After the ordeal, Mr. Enderby tries to convince Mrs. Rowland to renounce what she knows to be untrue, and to answer for why she said that he would marry Miss Bruce. Mrs. Rowland does not come around, however, and vows to fight her brother against the Hope's, Margaret, and the Grey's. Mrs. Rowland brings in another doctor, Walcot, to replace Mr. Hope, but Hope refuses to leave town. Meanwhile, Mrs. Enderby takes a turn for the worse and dies, but not before Margaret and Philip have had a chance to tell her of their engagement.

Mr. Walcot turns out to be rather young and easily influenced, a sort of tool for Mrs. Rowland's vendetta.  Thus, no one finds there to be much against him, so the Greys, the Hopes, and Margaret take him on a boating excursion. Enderby, who has left town to advance his career before marrying Margaret, returns during this excursion, and is oddly cold to Margaret. Mr. Hope ascertains that Mrs. Rowland has told him of Mr. Hope's initial attachment to Margaret rather than Hester, and Mrs. Grey confirmed Mr. Hope's initial surprise when she encouraged him to marry Hester. Mrs. Rowland has also fabricated that Margaret held an attachment to Hope previous to his marrying her sister. Devastated, Philip writes a letter to Margaret after his interview with Hope, vaguely berating her for not "trusting" him and revealing her past attachments. Margaret has no idea what he means, and says so much in a response, which is unfortunately intercepted by Mrs. Rowland and burned. Time passes, and Margaret resigns herself to such joys available as taking care of Hester and Hope's new baby, and takes on the cares of an increasingly impoverished household. They reach such a level of poverty that they must let Morris, the Ibbotson sister's old housekeeper, go. Still they manage to stand together through difficult times, and Margaret happily watches her sister and Mr. Hope develop a much healthier and mutually dependent and supportive relationship.

Soon, a fever comes to Deerbrook, and it is clear that Walcot is not up to the task of managing all of the cases. Though many leave the village, including the women and children of the Grey family, Margaret and Hester elect to stay behind to help Hope. Among the people that Margaret helps is a man named Platt and his family, a member of the country poor, whom Martineau depicts as highly superstitious, in addition to being desperately destitute. Margaret realizes as Platt dies that he was the man who came to their house one night when Hope was away to steal their food and money; she recovers from him a ring given to her from Philip. Among the villagers struck by the fever is Matilda, Mrs. Rowland's daughter. With her daughter on her deathbed, Mrs. Rowland allows Hope to come help, and renounces all that she has fabricated in the past. Philip has also returned to town, ostensibly because he still wants to make sure that Margaret and her family are okay. Mrs. Rowland comes clean, and Margaret and Philip reconcile. Matilda, sadly, doesn't make it. The novel ends with Margaret taking leave of Maria, about to begin her new life with Philip in London. Margaret confesses that she is now at ease with the state of Hester and Hope's marriage.

Martineau's task was to present a large-scale realist novel on middle-class country life, something hitherto unattempted. The indebtedness of Eliot's Middlemarch to Deerbrook is clearly evident. Besides the more superficial similarities like the characters Mr. Hope and Tertius Lydgate, both novels deal clearly with the limitations placed on an individual's capacity to act morally within the bounds of a particular social system. Mr. Hope's and Lydgate's struggle with continuing their profession is a direct result of their attempts to cast ethical votes, and to maintain an "independence" from petty gossip and politics which, they end up learning, is entirely impossible. Both men become deeply embroiled in what they have idealistically viewed as petty and beneath them, learning, humbly, that such petty things can end up meaning everything. For strong women in particular--Margaret, Hester, and Maria, the only social roles available are wife, if she should not lack both beauty or wealth, and governess if she should lack both. All three women struggle differently to live out socially acceptable lives given such constraints without losing sight of their own individuality. All three of these women end up finding solutions that "work" for each of them: Hester finds in Hope a husband that will temper her fiery flares of occasional jealousies such that she might freely live as her incredibly devoted and ardent self without fear of allowing her passions to get out of control, Margaret finds an apt partner in Philip (this relationship isn't really explored in depth in Martineau's novel, unlike Hester's and Hope's, so the only full picture of a successful marriage which Martineau offers is one in which the wife ends up under the "rule" of her husband, though she consents to this, and he is made better with her love and support), and Maria finds a way to hold a respectful position in society, earning her keep from a distance, which she comes to terms with as not loneliness to be pitied but a salutary solitude which grants her a more independent life than the likes of Margaret or Hester could live.  

One of the more interesting inventions of Martineau's narrative is Mrs. Rowland, who is also kind of a victim of social forces. Though Mrs. Rowland is clearly the "villain" of the story and the narrator reveals very little information that would encourage readers to sympathize with her. It isn't clear, in the end, why exactly she holds such malice for the Ibbotsons: after all, she isn't exactly a woman of strong religious or political commitments such that the Greys' "dissenter" status would really be behind her continued, obsessive machinations against those associated with them. At one point, very briefly, Hope tries to explain his theory of what might be behind Mrs. Rowland's evil:

"I take hers to be no uncommon case. The dislikes of low and selfish minds generally bear very much the character of hers, though they may not be pampered by circumstances into such a luxuriance as in this case. In a city, Mrs. Rowland might have been an ordinary spiteful fine lady. In such a place as Deerbrook, and with a family of rivals' cousins incessantly before her eyes, to exercise her passions upon, she has ended in being..."

Here, Hope leaves off and Margaret concludes, "what she is." This is a very clinical explanation of why Mrs. Rowland commits evil, one which is appropriately relayed by the doctor. Margaret, however, prevents Hope's final "diagnosis," preserving, in a way, Mrs. Rowland's humanity and not turning her into merely a "case." What Hope's assessment reveals, nevertheless, is that he believes some natures to simply be "selfish," and prone to competition--in a city, where capitalism is the rule of life, she might be neutralized by other competition. In the country, there is no check on her selfish competitiveness, and so its exercise becomes excessive and uncontrolled. Hope's view here checks out with Martineau's solution for Hester, who also has certain tendencies that need to be regulated by social institutions (in her case, jealousy by marriage). The difference with Mrs. Rowland's case is that she lives under the wrong social institutions necessary for the regulation of her selfishness. Deerbrook's faith in social regulation if applied "correctly" seems to me to be one of the essential differences which sets it apart from Middlemarch. Social institutions seem more like realities to live with and to continually struggle and carefully contend with in the latter work, whereas Deerbrook seems to really hold faith in the capacity of social institutions to regulate innate human sinfulness, if only they were applied appropriately to each "case" of the sinful human.

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