“There was no more talk of Birmingham.”
I told you that was going to happen. Those girls were never going to get to see their home again. Now that Hester is about to dive into this loveless, duty-based marriage, it’s curtains for a city life.
Chapter 14 opens with a quick gloss of the Marriage Situation thus far: things are moving along at a quick pace “as such affairs should do where there is no reason for delay.” (And I was a little surprised by this detail, since I had it in my head from some source or another that longer engagements were preferred so as to prove that there wasn’t about to be a “that baby’s going to need a last name” situation. Even Mrs Rowland says, a little later in the chapter, “that in her opinion the engagement had been a surprisingly short one; that she hoped the young people knew what they were about, while all their friends were in such a hurry; that it was a wretched time of year for a wedding; and that, in her opinion, it would have been much pleasanter to wait for fine spring weather.”) We also learn that the sisters don’t have much in the way of fortune, even after the death of everyone in their family. They’ll each have about 70 pounds a year. But Hope isn’t marrying her for her money. He’s marrying her because he suffered a head injury after being thrown from that horse and has confused “self-annihilation” with “duty.”
It’s not just self-annihilation, either, is it. He’s going to ruin the life and (little remaining) self-confidence of Hester while he’s at it, because she’s going to figure it out eventually, especially since — and oh, I forgot this part — Margaret’s going to live with them after the wedding, giving the novel all the sexual tension of a particularly dark Three’s Company episode. Marriage should never be an exercise in “can I?” It should never be a tool for self-discovery. Being in that kind of intimate relationship with another person is of course going to lead to growth and change; and of course we’re going to learn things about us that we never knew. But when the motivation is selfishly directed — if, for instance, you’re using marriage as a tool to figure out if you can be in a relationship: you’re doing it wrong. Granted, I’m new to marriage (thanks, D.C.!); and it’s not like I have many years of happily married life to look back on to bolster my “that’s wrong!” opinion. But I watch a lot of television. This arrangement that Hope is working up just isn’t going to work.
Martineau doesn’t think it’s going to work, either, giving us this delicious paragraph’s-worth of irony:
Furnishing a house is a process of high enjoyment when it is the preparation of a home for happy love. The dwelling is hung all round with bright anticipations, and crowded with blissful thoughts, spoken by none, perhaps, but present to all. On this table, and by this snug fireside, will the cheerful winter breakfast go forward, when each is about to enter on the gladsome business of the day; and that sofa will be drawn out, and those window-curtains will be closed, when the intellectual pleasures of the evening—the rewards of the laborious day—begin. Those ground-windows will stand open all the summer noon, and the flower stands will be gay and fragrant; and the shaded parlour will be the cool retreat of the wearied husband, when he comes in to rest from his professional toils. There will stand the books destined to refresh and refine his higher tastes; and there the music with which the wife will indulge him. Here will they first feel what it is to have a home of their own—where they will first enjoy the privacy of it, the security, the freedom, the consequence in the eyes of others, the sacredness in their own. Here they will first exercise the graces of hospitality, and the responsibility of control. Here will they feel that they have attained the great resting-place of their life—the resting-place of their individual lot, but only the starting-point of their activity. Such is the work of furnishing a house once in a lifetime. It may be a welcome task to the fine lady, decking her drawing-room anew, to gratify her ambition, or divert her ennui—it may be a satisfactory labour to the elderly couple, settling themselves afresh when their children are dispersed abroad, and it becomes necessary to discard the furniture that the boys have battered and spoiled—it may be a refined amusement to the selfish man of taste, wishing to prolong or recall the pleasures of foreign travel; but to none is it the conscious delight that it is to young lovers and their sympathising friends, whether the scene be the two rooms of the hopeful young artisan, about to bring home his bride from service; or the palace of a nobleman, enriched with intellectual luxuries for the lady of his adoration; or the quiet abode of an unambitious professional man, whose aim is privacy and comfort.
I quoted it in its entirety so you could truly appreciate how thickly Martineau is laying on the irony. Armed with this, I’m even more satisfied that Martineau meant for her overwrought opening to be read ironically, too. I’m not saying she’s adept with it; but you certainly know when she’s slathering it on.
(Later in the paragraph, Martineau paraphrases a lovely passage from George Herbert: Dusting a room is an act of religious grace when it is done from a feeling of religious duty. Since I’m not of a religious bent, I consider it in terms of mindfulness: washing dishes can be an act of meditation when it is done while fully present. Whatever connects us to mindfulness and awareness is doing its job. I couldn’t figure out how to seamlessly weave it into this recap, but I also wanted to acknowledge this almost Zen-like passage attributed to a seventeenth-century writer.)
Mr Hope continues to struggle with the consequences of his actions. He tries to convince himself that “he had never for a moment repented what he had done” — but then Martineau writes
A few cold misgivings had troubled him, and continued to trouble him, if Hester at any time looked at all less bright and serene than usual: but he concluded that these were merely the cloud-shadows which necessarily chequer all the sunshine of this world.
Unfortunately, Hope can’t pay too much attention to these “cold misgivings.” He’s too far along. Not only would his standing in the community be somewhat compromised (especially since Sophia had already run herself ragged promoting the match throughout the village), but if Hester, or the Greys on Hester’s behalf, wanted to, they could seek damages for his jilting her, based on the income she could have expected.
Hester and Mr Hope go for an afternoon walk — something that Hester hasn’t had great luck with. Having run out of awkward things to say to each other (Abandoned conversation starters from the Desk of Mr Edward Hope, Apothecary: “So, your sister sure is hot.” “Seen anything good on the television that hasn’t been invented yet? I understand that “Lost” is going to be super aggravating.” “Good there’s no plague this year.”), Hope uses one of my least favorite conversational opening salvos:
“There is something on our minds, Hester. Come, what is it?”
And Hester isn’t having it:
“Do not say ‘our minds.’ You know you never have anything on yours. I believe it is against your nature; and I know it is against your principles. Do not say ‘our minds.'”
Those kinds of questions where the asker inserts himself — “how are we?” “what are we up to?” “do we know when [x] happened?” — grate on my delicate nerves. Especially the “do we know when” questions. I get those a lot at work. “Well, clearly, we don’t know since you seem to be unclear.” I’m not saying that you’re dead to me if you do this (…Zach); I am saying that I probably intermittently think ugly thoughts at the moment.
What’s on Hester’s mind though (which, admittedly, is more important than “Michael Bevel: His Peeves and How to Placate Him”) are all the ways she’s going to screw up the marriage. She’s not coming at this from the same place that Hope is; she’s actually in love with him, and this marriage is the culmination of all of her desires (that she only realized she had when she arrived in Deerbrook). But she knows herself. She knows her jealous streak and her irrationality: “No good influence is permanent with me; many, all have been tried; and the evil that is in me gets the better of them all at last.”
She ends by basically summing up the whole point of the novel: “I shall never make you happy, Edward.” To which Hope no doubt thinks, “You don’t know the half of it, sister.”
Hope does the best he can with a crazy lady intent on hating herself and her situation — and maybe I’ll give him a little credit here for even trying. He says, “As I said before, all our failures, all our heart-sickness, must bind us the more to each other.” Which is lovely and healthy when it’s two people who are coming together not already overloaded with failures and heart-sickness. There’s an intimacy that comes from expressing your worst — and still be accepting for who you are which, in general, is probably not a monster.
(I especially like these lyrics to a song by Sarah Harmer called “The Ring“:
I know you’ve been impressed
You’ve seen me at my best
But oh, how it hurts
When I can’t hide my worst
Well thank-you for carrying on
For playing with me and this song
It made me feel better
We sat it out like some passing bad weather)
Hester’s response to that bit of kindness of Hope’s though, is…Well, I’ll let Hester tell you:
“Then you must sustain me—you must cure me—you must do what no one has ever yet been able to do. But above all, Edward, you must never, happen what may, cast me off.” [Emphasis mine, because Hope is too terrified to use italics.]
The chapter ends with bits of news here and there about the wedding, including this great bit about Mrs Rowland: “Every one on Mr Grey’s premises had a holiday—including Miss Young, though Mrs Rowland did not see why her children should lose a day’s instruction, because a distant cousin of Mr Grey’s was married. The marriage was made far too much a fuss of for her taste; and she vowed that whenever she parted with her own Matilda, there should be a much greater refinement in the mode.”
Chapter 15 is primarily concerned with a conversation between Margaret and Miss Young. While the newlyweds are honeymooning for a week in Oxford — (I was going to write something catty about the location-choice until I remembered that Zach and I will be spending our honeymoon in beautiful Livermore, California; however, I’ll get to take a side-trip to the Winchester Mystery House and Hester will just get to do…whatever one does in Oxford that isn’t “get an education” because she’s a lady) — Margaret is helping to set up the new house that she’ll share with her sister and her sister’s husband who still has a crush on Margaret because this novel could be subtitled “Great Ideas With Which to Live Your Life!” Margaret, with Hope and Hester’s permission, has invited Miss Young over for a day’s visit.
The girls get Morris, the sister’s servant, in on the conversation, asking her what she thinks about the prospects of Hope’s and Hester’s long-lasting marriage. Morris replies,
“We never know, Miss Margaret, my dear, how things will turn out. Do you remember Miss Stevenson, that married a gentleman her family all thought a great deal of, and he turned out a swindler, and—?”
She goes on to say that “she never saw anybody more confident of everything going right than Miss Stevenson and all her family; and within a month after the wedding, they were in the deepest distress.”
Oh, and, “There is death, my dears. Remember death, Miss Margaret.” And that’s the kind of way I would answer if I wanted to ensure not to be interrupted in my day-to-day with stupid questions about bad marriages. Morris is now my #2 favorite character (at least until Sophia shows up again, running all over town).
After they send Morris off to story-telling hour at the children’s tubercular ward (kidding) (but wouldn’t that be awesome?), Margaret and Miss Young settle in to talk about things like how important housekeeping is (Martineau even writes the phrase “women do inevitably love housekeeping” and I can’t tell if she’s being ironic here or not; however, if true, it might be the strongest argument for heterosexuality I’ve ever heard) and how Margaret had better hurry up and marry because daylight’s a wasting. Hester was able to find and marry a husband in a little over six months; what’s keeping you, Margaret?
Margaret’s not averse to the idea, “If there was anyone…” This surprises Miss Young because she, like the rest of us, knows that Mr Enderby’s totally sweet on Maggie.
“If there was any one!”—repeated Maria, looking up in some surprise. “My dear Margaret, do you mean to say there is no one?”
And yeah, Maria: that’s what she’s saying. Kind of. What Margaret actually says is worth quoting in full, because it agrees a little with what I was saying in the previous post about how men just can’t go around being kind to any woman they run across lest it turn into some huge scandal when he ends up not marrying her:
“Yes, I do; I think so. I know what you mean, Maria. I understand your face and your voice. But I do think it is very hard that one cannot enjoy a pleasant friendship with anybody without seeing people on the watch for something more. It is so very painful to have such ideas put into one’s mind, to spoil all one’s intercourse—to throw restraint over it—to mix up selfishness with it! It is so wrong to interfere between those who might and would be the most useful and delightful companions to each other, without having a thought which need put constraint between them! Those who so interfere have a great deal to answer for. They do not know what mischief they may be doing—what pain they may be giving while they are gossiping, and making remarks to one another about what they know nothing at all about. I have no patience with such meddling!”
She’s like a nineteenth century Sally, without the orgasm scene in the deli. “We’re just friends,” Margaret keeps arguing. Miss Young isn’t buying it.
You can sort of lather-rinse-repeat your way through a lot of chapter 15, since it’s a choral round of “you like him like him!” and “no I don’t!” That is, up until the women have this conversation about marriage that I found incredibly insightful and even contemporary in its gender dynamic. Miss Young starts by saying,
“The first strange thing is, that every woman approaches this crisis of her life as unawares as if she were the first that ever loved.”
“And yet all girls are brought up to think of marriage as almost the only event in life. Their minds are stuffed with thoughts of it almost before they have had time to gain any other ideas.”
“Merely as means to ends low enough for their comprehension. It is not marriage—wonderful, holy, mysterious marriage—that their minds are full of, but connection with somebody or something which will give them money, and ease, and station, and independence of their parents. This has nothing to do with love. I was speaking of love—the grand influence of a woman’s life, but whose name is a mere empty sound to her till it becomes, suddenly, secretly, a voice which shakes her being to the very centre—more awful, more tremendous, than the crack of doom.”
I’m sure many of Miss Young’s contemporaries would suggest that she’s simply employing the Sour Grapes school of marriage psychology: that, because she was sort of left high-and-dry by Mr Enderby, and because she’s now crippled, she casts a jaundiced eye over all of romance. And yet you and me — we know she’s speaking a deep truth here, especially for nineteenth century women. (There’s a reason I was so interested in assigning Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata last year.) Especially pay attention to the line “but connection with somebody or something that will give them money.” For Austen, this was a truth universally acknowledged and not necessarily to be questioned; thirty years later, and going forward, marrying for money becomes a character flaw and a mercenary act.
And now, because Miss Young is actually being seen — and not just a gimpy repository for other people’s children, but as a woman who understands love and desire — now, she starts to open her heart a little more to Margaret. She tells Margaret one of those, “I knew a woman…” stories that usually ends with “…and that woman was me.” She talks about the changeableness of men and the precarious position women find themselves in when they start to fall in love and I’ll just let Miss Young speak for herself here, too:
“Then there comes a day—it is often a mystery why it should be that day of all days—when the innocent, and gay, and confident young creature finds herself in sudden trouble. The film on which she lightly trod has burst and she is in an abyss. It seems a mere trifle that plunged her there. Her friend did not come when she looked for him, or he is gone somewhere, or he has said something that she did not expect. Some such trifle reveals to her that she depends wholly upon him—that she has for long been living only for him, and on the unconscious conclusion that he has been living only for her. At the image of his dwelling anywhere but by her side, of his having any interest apart from hers, the universe is, in a moment, shrouded in gloom. Her heart is sick, and there is no rest for it, for her self-respect is gone. She has been reared in a maidenly pride, and an innocent confidence: her confidence is wholly broken-down; her pride is wounded and the agony of the wound is intolerable. We are wont to say, Margaret, that everything is endurable but a sense of guilt. If there be an exception, this is it. This wounding of the spirit ought not perhaps to be, but it is very like the sting of guilt; and a ‘wounded spirit who can bear?'”
She finally concludes her tale of woe (and now I feel bad suggesting that Morris is a Drama Queen because, you guys…) by saying, “It is from my own experience that I speak. And now, there is some one in the world who knows it beside myself.”
I’m curious about this unburdening. Later, Miss Young appears to try to change the subject from her dire failures in love by asking, “When do you expect your friend, Mr Enderby, at Deerbrook again?” How genuine are we supposed to believe that Miss Young is being? She’s just told Margaret, in cloaked terms, what an asshole Enderby is; and there’s a sense, in her telling, that she would forgive Enderby all if he would just shape up and come back to her. Is Miss Young toying with Margaret? Is she punishing herself by being near the woman Mr Enderby appears to now be in love with? Miss Young is a complicated character, who bears close watching from here on out.
In the next section, we’ll finish the first of the three volumes of this novel, and spend the next two chapters of the second volume playing the “Guess who’s going to die next?” game.