The opening sentence of Deerbrook isn’t one of my favorites — or, maybe it would be better to say “wasn’t.” Coming to the novel fresh, it sort of feels like everything that everyone has ever hated about nineteenth literature:

Every town-bred person who travels in a rich country region, knows what it is to see a neat white house planted in a pretty situation,—in a shrubbery, or commanding a sunny common, or nestling between two hills,—and to say to himself, as the carriage sweeps past its gate, “I should like to live there,”—”I could be very happy in that pretty place.” Transient visions pass before his mind’s eye of dewy summer mornings, when the shadows are long on the grass, and of bright autumn afternoons, when it would be luxury to saunter in the neighbouring lanes; and of frosty winter days, when the sun shines in over the laurustinus at the window, while the fire burns with a different light from that which it gives in the dull parlours of a city.

For me, it’s too…much. There’s no economy of phrase, and it all sort of mushes along together with no real energy. It’s no, for instance, Nicholas Nickleby:

There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason. Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.

It’s not exactly a fair comparison; the two novels are different, want to accomplish different things, and are written by entirely different authors. But Dickens, who is often lambasted for wordiness, effectively opens his novel in two sentences; Martineau, in contrast, seemes mired in hers.

But maybe Martineau has different plans for that opening? (That’s rhetorical; she’s totally has different plans.)

What I missed the first three (or four) (or, okay, five) times I tried to start the novel is Martineau’s irony. She’s not especially skilled with it, and that opening is still more rough draft than not. You’ve got to get past chapter one, though, to get that.

The Ibbotson sisters are newly orphaned and can we talk about that for a second? I thought I was going to describe the Ibbotson’s entrance into Deerbrook society but Hester and Margaret are 20 and 21 and usually we reserve the term “orphan” for the under 15 set and Shirley Temple in any film where she dances through the horrors of family death and separation (i.e., all of them). But this is the 1830s, and girls don’t become women until marriage. And they don’t really become adults ever. Not that any of this was especially a secret to me; this isn’t my first time at the Bustles & Beaux Rodeo. But maybe by fighting so hard to appreciate Martineau’s writing (and we’ll deal with her writing more throughout this series of posts) I also sort of forced myself to really confront the plight of nineteenth century women.

The Ibbotson girls arrive in Deerbrook on the rural village leg of their Newly Orphaned Sisters tour to stay with some distant relations, the Greys. It’s the Greys house that is described so thoroughly in that opening paragraph. Martineau suffuses the portrait with air and light, setting the stage for later claustrophobia and tension.

Hester (the eldest) and Margaret grew up in Birmingham, which then, as now, was the second most populous city in England after London. Their mother died when they were both quite young, and their father died recently. Martineau tells us, “They had passed their lives in Birmingham, and had every inclination to return to it, when their visit to their Deerbrook relations should have been paid.” The sisters, bless their hearts, think that they can somehow control their lives; that they are now free to go and behave as they please. But they’ve left the safe anonymity of the city. They’re in Deerbrook, now.

Deerbrook is a little more complicated than just a simple village, just like the novel Deerbrook is a little more complicated than it may first appear, with its neat-white-house-planted-in-a-pretty-situation beginning. We’re told that that “the stage-coach had begun to pass through Deerbrook” — so Deerbrook is connected juuuuust enough to make it dangerous. From what the back of the book tells me about the plot, this detail is also sort of important for what Martineau is trying to create. Deerbrook is a small village, which means everyone is sort of up in everyone else’s business; and it’s now on the equivalent of the Red Line, meaning that whatever scandal happens to brew and boil over in Deerbrook has the potential to become news in other villages, too.

But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. We’re just dealing with the firs three chapters here. And all we know now is that Deerbrook is super pretty, you guys; and the Greys’ house is super pretty (p.s., the Greys are: Mr Grey, the father; Mrs Grey, the mother; Sophia Grey, the oldest daughter; Sydney Grey, the second child and only son; and Fanny and Mary Grey, the twins); and the Ibbotsons have just arrived and Hester is super duper pretty. Which is all Mrs Grey and Sophia can talk about — that, and gossiping about how odd it is the Miss Ibbotsons have decided to keep a maid, especially in their newly constrained circumstances. While Martineau’s writing can be uneven — especially in this opening section — what she’s very good at is this layering of expectation, once you cotton to what’s going on. This novel isn’t an outright piece of social criticism about the plight of women; and yet Martineau constantly and subtly makes the point that the lives of these women — all these women — are not their own. This is for a variety of reasons: the Ibbotsons are young, unmarried orphans who must be dealt with matrimonially as soon as yesterday — especially that looker, Hester (Margaret’ll have to fend for herself, or is more of a post-low-hanging-fruit kinda project); Miss Young, introduced as the twins’ teacher, is lame and conscribed by both her profession and her sex (and her gimpiness); the Grey women spend their days in gossip mongering and petty rivalries because really, people, there are only so many sewing projects in the entire world.

Some other quick points/thoughts about chapters 1 – 3:

  • We meet our first dead character in chapter 1 — and older sister of Sophia’s who died many years previously. The novel is littered with dead people, and children more than likely. Even the Ibbotson sisters have a dead brother they talk about. (Their lives would have been a little different, in some aspects, had their brother lived; however, not too many aspects would change: they’d still need to be married off — unless this brother would have been of the same Schlegel-spirit that the sisters seem to be made of.) Of course, the nineteenth century wasn’t an easy time to be a baby or a mother. The chances of either (or both) dying remained very high throughout the century.
  • We meet the Greys next door neighbor, and one of the prime targets of their gossip: the wife of Mr Grey’s partner, Mrs Rowland. Mrs Rowland and Mrs Grey battle like they’re network stars. I think that Martineau is doing something a little interesting with these women, though: while on one hand she shows them as being a victim of nineteenth century patriarchy (even if she didn’t think of it in such start, twenty-first century terms), she also shows them challenging that system as well. For instance: Mrs Rowland refuses to care for her mother, who lives next door: “So near as she [i.e., Mrs Enderby, Mrs Rowland’s mother] lives to the Rowlands, it is shocking how they neglect her.”
  • Both the Greys and the Ibbotsons are Dissenters — a pretty bold theological move to make even in the somewhat more liberal times of the early nineteenth century (/irony). Actually, I’m not being that ironic: the Greys and Ibbotsons are curiosities for being Dissenters (which are any Christian denomination that wasn’t the Church of England), but they’re not marked for burning. (At least not for their religious proclivities.) (I kid; no one is going to be burned in this novel, no matter how much I hate Mrs Grey.)
  • There’s a curious bit of literary borrowing towards the end of the first chapter. See if you can guess who is being (badly) borrowed from: “It is a fact which few but the despisers of their race like to acknowledge, and which those despisers of their race are therefore apt to interpret wrongly, and are enabled to make too much of—that it is perfectly natural,—so natural as to appear necessary,—that when young people first meet, the possibility of their falling in love should occur to all the minds present.” (It takes Martineau 67 words to accomplish what Austen accomplishes in 23. I’m just saying.)
  • I mentioned above that the sisters think that they’ll get to go back home to Birmingham once they’ve finished with their visiting at Deerbrook. However, once Mr Hope, the village apothecary, stops by for a visit, all Mrs Grey and Sophia can talk about is when the wedding is going to be between Hester and Mr Hope. Those girls, no matter how badly they may want to, are never leaving Deerbrook alive or unmarried. In some ways, Deerbrook the novel is an early domestic horror story.

I’m dealing with the novel in roughly 30-page increments a day until we meet on 20 April. The next chapters we’ll look at are three and four: Miss Young rhapsodizes beautifully about the sanctity of leisure; the Ibbotsons are trapped into visiting with a bunch of people they don’t know (because it’s the country and that’s what you do when there are no witches to be burned). And there’s a lot about cowslips. A lot about cowslips.