The poor Miss Ibbotsons start chapter 4 under the delusion that they are the masters of their own time. This is not to be the case. As new visitors — new, single, lady visitors — their entire existence at Deerbrook has already been mapped out, and that existence doesn’t include a morning’s walk on their second day there. No. Their existence includes sitting in the sitting room, sewing something decoratively useless, and waiting for people to come by and gawk at them.
This is what it means to be a single woman of a certain class in the nineteenth century.
Once Hester and Margaret are told that they can’t take their morning constitutional stroll (after Sophia and her mother, Mrs Grey, have a panicked closed-door discussion about it; they’re horrified that the Ibbotson sisters could even think of strolling when they haven’t been seen on the auction block yet), Hester comes to the conclusion that “a town life was more free than a country one, after all.” Which struck me as an interesting point — that these girls would no doubt have an easier and certainly more mobile life back in Birmingham. The confines of the city provide an anonymity that country life, with its ironic expanses of freedom, cannot provide.
Their first full morning at Deerbrook, the sisters meet a neighbor, Mrs Enderby, whose daughter, Mrs Rowland, is the wife of Mr Grey’s business partner. Mrs Rowland, as I mentioned in the previous post, is in a Cold War escalation with Mrs Grey over everything from child-rearing to education to summer picnic planning. Mrs Enderby arrives with her son, Philip, and they both seem mostly delightful, but neither is, of course, a morning’s walk through a meadow. Philip Enderby is no fan of the Grey women, since he knows they talk smack about her sister — even though she kind of deserves it — behind her back. Mrs Enderby spends most of the time creating elaborate justifications for why her daughter hasn’t stopped by yet.
Hester and Margaret aren’t keen on meeting Mrs Rowland yet anyway. Earlier that morning, before their grand adventure was curtailed, they had overheard Mrs Rowland being generally unpleasant about the Greys and, by extension, the sisters, too. When Mrs Rowland asks Mr Rowland about the chances of taking a day trip to a nearby village, Mr Rowland reminds her that tomorrow would be a better day; Mrs Rowland is expected to visit the Greys’ new visitors. “Oh, as to that, there is no hurry,” she tells him. “If I had nothing else to do, I should not make that call to-day. Any day will do as well.”
Of course Mrs Rowland is all talk with her I’ll-gladly-visit-Tuesday-for-a-chance-to-snub-today. She shows up and she and Mrs Grey spend their time arguing while Hester and Margaret visit with Philip, talking about all of the places they would like to go. At the top of the list? Anywhere that doesn’t contain Mrs Rowland and Mrs Grey. “All we want is to be in the open air in the fields,” Margaret says. Well, want in one hand, Maggie, as my mom would say. (The rest of that saying is incredibly vulgar, and my mom would haul it out in front of company all the time. “You mom is so…colorful,” Zach said after the first time he met her. “She’s a moonshiner, you say?” I once had to explain what she meant by “useless as windshield wipers on a duck’s ass,” and he said that maybe in the future he would prefer to get his animal information from the Animal Planet channel. His loss. That Animal Planet channel is about as useful as tits on a boar hog. But I digress.)
There’s a compelling discussion about the nature of gossip in a small village. Philip Enderby says that Mr Hope, the apothecary, somehow manages to stay above the fray of she said/she said. (Of course he attributes most of the gossip to women, not bothering to consider the gossip he’s engaging in currently.) According to the teaser plot synopsis on the back of my edition (Penguin classics), this is probably all foreshadowing, since there’s some “malicious village gossip” in the future involving several of the characters.
“How does Mr Hope help himself in that case?” Margaret asks Philip Enderby, in regards to gossip.
“It remains to be seen,” Philip answers. And there’s your plot, gang.
The back of the book also suggests an unsuitable marriage, which gives this scene, between the Ibbotsons and the lame (as in, she was in a terrible carriage accident that killed her father) Miss Young. It starts with Margaret saying,
“I suppose most people would say here what is said everywhere else about the nobleness and privilege of the task of teaching children. But I do not envy those who have it to do. I am as fond of children as any one; but then it is having them out to play on the grass, or romping with them in the nursery, that I like. When it becomes a matter of desks and school-books, I had far rather study than teach.”
“I believe everybody, except perhaps mothers, would agree with you,” said Miss Young, who was now, without apology, plying her needle.
“Indeed! then I am very sorry for you.”
“Thank you; but there’s no need to be sorry for me. Do you suppose that one’s comfort lies in having a choice of employments? My experience leads me to think the contrary.”
“I do not think I could be happy,” said Hester, ‘to be tied down to an employment I did not like.”
“Not to a positively disgusting one. But I am disposed to think that the greatest number of happy people may be found busy in employments that they have not chosen for themselves, and never would have chosen.”
“I am afraid these very happy people are haunted by longings to be doing something else.”
Chapter 5 is titled “The Meadows” — and starts with the revelation that Mrs Grey has arranged for a holiday for her twin daughters, and that there is to be no school that day. Instead, there will be an excursion to the meadow in search of cowslips and more foreshadowing.
This leaves Miss Young alone in the schoolroom. She’s not invited on the excursion, probably because one doesn’t picnic with the help. This leaves Miss Young with a free day, an unexpected free day, and she uses it to muse beautifully while sitting at her window, sewing and watching the activity from afar. It’s truly a lovely bit of writing, and maybe the beginning of the tradition of stream-of-consciousness that Virginia Woolf will be so found of almost one hundred years later. Her thoughts take her from the bliss of free time — especially for one whose time has been so circumscribed by duty. There might even be a bit of Martineau in Miss Young, especially when Miss Young thinks, “How I love to overlook people,—to watch them acting unconsciously, and speculate for them! It is the most tempting thing in the world to contrast the little affairs one sees them busy about, with the very serious ones which await them,—which await every one.”
During Miss Youngs rhapsody, we also learn that, once upon a time, there might have been a suggestion of interest between Miss Young and Philip Enderby — that is, before the carriage accident. One starts to dislike Philip Enderby at this point, a little.
Meanwhile, in the meadow, almost everyone is searching for cowslips. Hester isn’t, because she feels brutal, pulling the flowers from their stems. Sophia Grey isn’t, because — and this is why I love Sophia a little, gossip-monger that she is — because it’s “too warm.” Margaret has made the best of the event; however, she soon becomes obsessed with a spider’s web — which causes Mr Hope, who has joined them on this excursion, to announce that he’ll give free horse rides to anyone who can find a less disgusting nest. One of the twins suggests searching for an ant nest, and everyone sort of dies inside and hopes that her looks stay because no one is going to marry that one for her mind.
While everyone is hunting up nests, the talk turns to death and dying (as it will in this novel because, seriously: it’s littered with dead babies and dead parents. I thought North and South was relentless in killing people off — and it might still be, since Elizabeth Gaskell kills everyone “on screen” as it were. In Deerbrook, so far, the dead have died before the novel opens; however, they’re mentioned frequently). One of the villagers is currently dying, and Margaret is a little surprised that the apothecary can come from that guy’s death bed to a sunny meadow in a great mood. Mr Hope rationalizes it this way:
“The dying person is commonly old, or so worn out by illness as to make death at last no evil. When the illness is shorter, it is usually found that a few hours in the sick room do the work of months of common life, in reconciling the minds of survivors.”
“I am sure that is true,” observed Margaret.
“It is so generally the case that I know no set of circumstances in which I should more confidently reckon on the calmness, forethought, and composure of the persons I have to deal with than in the family of a dying person. The news comes suddenly to the neighbours: all the circumstances rush at once into their imaginations: all their recollections and feelings about the sufferer agitate them in quick succession; and they naturally suppose the near friends must be more agitated, in proportion to their nearness.”
“The watchers, meanwhile,” said Hester, “have had time in the long night to go over the past and the future, again and again; and by morning all seems so familiar, that they think they can never be surprised into grief again.”
“So familiar,” said Mr Hope, “that their minds are at liberty for the smallest particulars of their duty. I usually find them ready for the minutest directions I may have to give.”
Moments like this, at least for me, are what keep the book interesting. The nineteenth century wasn’t the healthiest of times to be a person; death was much more…I can’t say “present,” because death is always present. But it was much more visible. The dying stayed at home, generally. We couldn’t brush a loved one’s demise from our mind, because we had to sit with them through the night. We had to cool their forehead. We had to be present. Now death is much more mysterious, because we’ve abandoned it to hospitals. It’s curious to me what each age chooses to be honest about. The Victorians were a little self-conscious about sex and sexuality; we’re a little dishonest about death and dying. Tomato/tomahto.
Martineau also has interesting things to say about mourning, too:
“Yes: the time for surprise,—for consternation,—is long afterwards,” said Hester, with some emotion. “When the whole has become settled and finished in other minds, the nearest mourners begin to wake up to their mourning.”
“And thus,” said Margaret, “the strongest agitation is happily not witnessed.”
This seems especially poignant coming from two women who have lost a brother, a mother, and, most recently, a father.
Mr Hope contrasts the mourning at a death to the general mourning of life’s other tragedies. Because he, and most everone else in the nineteenth century, had a Christian belief in the afterlife, he argues, death isn’t the same tragedy as, say, the dissolution of a marriage:
“Is it, generally speaking, the greatest of sorrows? I think not, for my own part. There are cases in which the loss is too heavy to bear being the subject of any speculation, almost of observation; for instance, when the happiest married people are separated, or when a first or only child dies: but I think there are many sorrows greater than a separation by death of those who have faith enough to live independently of each other, and mutual love enough to deserve, as they hope, to meet again hereafter. I assure you I have sometimes come away from houses unvisited, and unlikely to be visited by death, with a heart so heavy as I have rarely or never brought from a deathbed.
“I am persuaded that there is immeasurably more suffering endured, both in paroxysms and for a continuance, from infirmity, tendency to a particular fault, or the privation of a sense, than from the loss of any friend upon earth, except the very nearest and dearest; and even that case is no exception, when there is the faith of meeting again, which almost every mourner has, so natural and welcome as it is.”
Sophia has bitchy and unkind things to say about the dying man that prompted this conversational foray, claiming that no one will miss him once he’s gone. Mr Hope disagrees. “Some few will miss him,” he sys. “He is a simple-hearted, shy man, who never did himself justice, except with two or three who saw most of him. Their affection has been enough for him—enough to make him think now that his life has been a very happy one.” As if to underscore this almost Buddhist revelation about peace and serenity, a group of larks flutter about the picnickers. Sophia, pulling a Mary Crawford, is having none of it: “[She] said it made her head ache to look up so long; and she seemed impatient for the bird to have done.” (“Resting fatigues me,” says Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. “I have looked across the ha-ha till I am weary.”)
The nest hunting ends with Mr Hope’s revealing of a swans nest. While he delivers on his promise of free horse rides (even though, technically, he was the one to find the nest), Sophia, Hester, and Margaret continue walking along the water, running into Philip Enderby and Sophia’s brother Sydney, who are fishing. The conversation among the group turns to how the Ibbotson sisters will spend their days (“Trying to escape” I wrote in the margin). Margaret suggests that she’ll hang out a lot with Miss Young, learning German, as one does when trapped in the country. Hester, though, says that she is “rather afraid of the undertaking.” There’s a complicated conversation about Miss Young that I haven’t entirely sussed out — something about the difference between Miss Young’s being “sensible” and her philosophy. I’ve re-read that section about a frillion times and am not any nearer to gaining Martineau’s point. If anyone has any hints about it, I’d love to hear what they are.
The group’s time at the meadow, and the chapter, ends with Hester musing, in general, “I do not understand how life can slip away so. Is there ever a day without its sting?—without doubt of somebody, disappointment in oneself or another, dread of some evil, or weariness of spirit?” In the small village of Deerbrook, where young unmarried ladies go to dissolve into marriage, the answer is probably “no.”