The third chapter of Book 2 is titled “Home at the Hopes'” — which could be the “Jeopardy!” answer to “Where does Mike not want to be?” (On a completely unrelated topic, I just got up to put an air-activated heatwrap on my lower back because Zach tried to kill me yesterday, causing me to fall off my bike and on to my fortunately well-padded ass. However, I’m feeling a little tender today, and we’ve got these packs that work through some kind of alchemy because how else can you explain the words “air-activated heatwrap” appearing in a sentence? But we’re getting away from the point of this parenthetical. The point is, one of the “DO NOT USE” bullet points, along with “on broken skin” and “on children under 12” is “on areas of your body where heat cannot be felt” and I cannot, for the life of me, think of any part of my body where heat cannot be felt except, perhaps, my fingernails or toenails, but if one is going to apply an air-activated heatwrap to one’s toenails, perhaps one has more issues at stake to begin with.)
Mr Hope continues to experience fallout from his voting for the “wrong” candidate — nevermind the fact that this wrong candidate, a man named Mr Lowry, won the election and not, it would appear, by one vote. But it would seem that the most influential members of Deerbrook society do not make up the majority of Deerbrook society (and that ratio seems about right, just in general, no matter where you’re talking about), and that’s how the wrong man got elected. Mr Hope unfortunately happens to be a public figure who publicly voted for the wrong guy.
A woman named Lady Hunter, who is part of Deerbrook’s gentility, wonders to anyone who will listen “whether it was possible that Mr Hope had forgotten under whose interest he held his appointment to attend the almshouses and the neighbouring hamlet.” Mr Hope starts to lose some of his clients, and rumors start spreading that Mr Hope and Mr Lowry are now seen in conversation “in the lanes.” (Mr Lowry is a character spoken of, but not seen, in the novel. He comes to symbolize, for various characters, either Mr Hope’s idealism or his recklessness.)
Hester, who was having a tough enough time already just in being alive, finds herself on the very tip of the knife of despondency when she realizes that most everyone in the village hates her because of her husband. She becomes even more of a trial for her husband and her sister. Margaret, ironically, finds “great comfort [in] Edward” — though she is starting now to notice a reserve in Hope that she hadn’t seen before, especially now when she wants to be comforted by him for how irritating her sister is.
We get to see this dynamic in action when Margaret wants to take a walk in the woods, but can’t because her snow shoes she ordered have not arrived. She and Margaret take a walk to the shop and try to get some answers from the proprietor — an anti-Lowry who takes this opportunity to be super-unhelpful as a way of registering her displeasure with Hope’s political enfranchisement. Hester asks if her boot have arrived, and the shop-keep takes great pleasure in proffering a disinterested “Not yet.”
“Only consider how the winter is getting on, Mrs Howell! and I can walk nowhere but in the high-road, for want of my boot,” Hester tries, and while I get Hester’s frustration, Mrs Howell isn’t the person who has to consider anything about winter or Hester’s want of boots. It’s not like Mrs Howell has any power over shipping. (Because of my great powers of situational ethics, I can sympathize with both parties. I have certainly been in the position of trying to shame a customer service representative into giving me better service, and feeling justified in doing so. I’ve also taken great pleasure in being in a position to be categorically unhelpful with impunity. As Zach often says: I am a monster.)
Hester gives it one last try: “How do other ladies manage to obtain their boots before the snow comes, instead of after it has melted?”
“Perhaps you will ask them yourself ma’am: I conceive you know all the ladies in Deerbrook.”
Hester and Margaret then walk over to the cobblers to see if they can just get a pair of shoes made (and why she didn’t try that way back when the snow boots first were thought of Martineau doesn’t explain — but I’m pretty sure the fact that Hester ordered her shoes from out of the village rather than going local isn’t helping her at all in the minds of the villagers. And, actually, speaking of that: though Martineau hasn’t written this explicitly, I’m pretty sure Deerbrook villagers also can’t be happy with the fact that some city lady comes along and snatches up an eligible bachelor. They might have borne it if that was the only thing that happened when the Ibbotsons came to town; but, what with the out-of-town shoe buying and Mr Hope voting for the wrong guy — it’s all too much of a muchness.)
There’s not much help there, either. While the ladies are trying on shoes, they overhear news of a tragedy, and that a medical man is being brought in from a neighboring village. (I’m telling you: folks are really pissed at Hope.) The sisters leave the shop, sans shoes, and Hester starts crying at the way everyone is treating her and her husband. They run into the Grey children while Hester is sobbing through the streets — and that’s going to come back to haunt the sisters a little later.
Still crying, Hester is taken home by Margaret, where Hester continues to cry throughout dinner and I mean, come on, lady. Hope tries to talk sense in to her, or at least get to the bottom of this incessant crying, but with no luck. He tries a Socratic method with Hester, which leads to this horrifying conversation:
“Suppose our neighbours should send me to Coventry, and my patients should leave me so far as that we should not have enough to live on?”
“That would be persecution,” cried Hester, brightening. “I could bear persecution,—downright persecution.”
“You could bear seeing your husband torn by lions in the amphitheatre,” said Margaret, smiling, “but…”
“But a toss of Mrs Howell’s head is unendurable,” said Hope, with solemnity.
Hester looked down, blushing like a chidden child.
This part of the novel is difficult to recap, because there are only so many ways to say, “…and then Hester cried and was annoying and Hope was wrong and long-suffering.” But that’s what happens throughout most of “Home at the Hopes’.” After Hester expresses outrage at all of Hope’s clients leaving him, when a call comes in for him to actually go and see a patient in a professional capacity, Hester freaks out and says, “Oh, do not leave me, Edward! Do not leave me at this moment!”
I want to be clear about something, though, now, after a lot of Hester-bashing: this isn’t a bad novel because Hester is insufferable. I think Deerbrook is a very fine novel, with complicated characters, and that Harriet Martineau is saying something interesting about human nature and love and responsibility. She’s written Hester so well that she becomes a trial to read about — but that doesn’t make this a bad novel. I have heard from people, in regards to books that aren’t Deerbrook, that they didn’t like a novel because they didn’t like the characters. That seems a poor way of reading, and a limiting way of seeing the world. When confronted with characters you don’t particularly like, maybe that’s the time to think about why you don’t like them. What parts of yourself can you see reflected back at you in unlikeable characters? How have you handled characters like these in your own life?
As Fran Lebowitz has said: Literature is not a mirror, it’s a door.
[Don’t listen to me. So I wrote the above, and then Zach said, “Let’s go see a movie. And we went to see Vincere, a film about Benito Mussolini. We were tricked into seeing it by its 94% freshness rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It’s a wretched, wretched, wretched film that treats its main female character in the worst possible ways — giving her no real dialogue in the 20 minutes we saw of the film before walking out, and making her the naked object of Mussolini’s weird, glassy-eyed lust and can I just say: Worst. Kissing. Ever. That may have been how that character was, or was supposed to be for the film, but I have to tell you: I didn’t want to spend any more of the film with her. Literature, or Art, may be a door — but you should feel free to shut that door when you don’t want to spend any more time with whatever’s knocking from the other side.]
Margaret considers the hell she’s in, with her sister’s moods and jealousies crowding all goodwill out of the house. She also comes to this almost Zen Buddhist conclusion: “She had but of late ceased to suppose herself in the wrong when Hester was unhappy.” Cheri Huber, in her book How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, Huber writes that “a conditioned response to disapproval is to assume one is at fault.” This struck me as incredibly profound, because it spoke directly to a situation that keeps recurring in my own life. And I think when one is dealing with someone like Hester (or, for instance, my mom), one often finds it easier to assume the entire responsibility for all of the disappointment and bad feelings, since it’s likely that the other participant in the unhealthy relationship sure as heck isn’t going to pony up to the responsibility bar. But you can’t keep doing that. And I’m glad that Hester has finally reached that place.
As it turns out, Margaret and Hope are quietly singing the “This House Sucks” blues as a duet without knowing it. His goes a little something like this:
“So this is home!” thought he, as he surveyed the room, filled as it was with tokens of occupation, and appliances of domestic life. “It is home to be more lonely than ever before—and yet never to be alone with my secret! At my own table, by my own hearth, I cannot look up into the faces around me, nor say what I am thinking. In every act and every word I am in danger of disturbing the innocent—even of sullying the pure, and of breaking the bruised reed.”
He at least has the good sense to accept some responsibility for the awfulness of the situation, saying, “Except in the weakness of declining to inflict that suffering upon her which, fearful as it must have been, might perhaps have proved less than, with all my care, she must undergo now. There was my fault.”
Chapter 4 opens with the Rowland girls sharing the gossip about Hester crying that they’d learned for the Grey girls. Their mom’s response is awesome:
“Indeed! Crying! What, in the middle of the day?”
So of course you know that piece of news now has a set of legs on it. Mr Rowland, in an attempt to put a stop to all this petty gossiping by revealing how ridiculous it is says, “Had you not better put on your bonnet, and go directly to Mr Hope’s, and ask, with our compliments, what Mrs Hope was crying for at four o’clock yesterday afternoon? Of course she can tell better than anybody else.”
What the Rowland’s don’t expect is for their son to trudge dutifully off to the Hopes’ — but that’s what little George does, and 10 minutes later Margaret is at the Rowland’s front door wanting to know what the hell is going on at the Rowland’s that would make them think this kind of questioning is okay.
Later in the day, Margaret decides to visit some ailing neighbors that have never been mentioned in the book up to this point. While she’s gone, Hope has a conversation with his wife about some news he has learned through the Deerbrook grapevine: namely, that Philip Enderby is to be married, and not to Margaret, as everyone had sort of been expecting, what with his spending so much time with her and sneaking her presents of books in front of his ex-girlfriend.
Hester says that she’s not terribly surprised, considering the news Mrs Rowland shared with her back when they were on their terrible walk through the woods. At that time, six months previously, Mrs Rowland had said that Philip was expected to make a match with a much more eligible girl than either of the Ibbotson sisters could ever expect to be. Hope is scandalized by this:
“How does that agree with his conduct to Margaret? Or am I mistaken in what I have told you I thought about that? Seriously—very seriously—how do you suppose the case stands with Margaret?”
There is so much to love in this response — especially Hope’s fears that Enderby has figured out how not to follow through on whatever social contract nonsense that drove Hope to marry a woman he didn’t love. There’s this desperate sense of, “No no no no no: He has to marry one of these sisters because I had to marry one of these sisters. WON’T SOMEONE ELSE MARRY ONE OF THESE SISTERS?!?”
Hope and Hester decide to keep this news from Margaret until another time, once they both know for sure if the information is true or not. Only, because this is Deerbrook, they’re too late before Margaret even gets home. As soon as she walks through the door, both Hope and Hester can tell that she’s received shocking news — and no doubt, the same shocking news they were just talking about. And what had already been an incredibly uncomfortable house to live in just had all of its screws tightened.