First off, greetings from some ungodly distance up in the air. I’m in an airplane, flying to the West Coast to see my mom because I’m a good son (but not a good son like Macaulay Caulkin in that horrifying The Good Son movie where he terrorizes Elijah Wood before he became a hobbit). The other thing that I’ll dispatch with quickly in this paragraph is that Zach and I were married yesterday (13 April) in D.C. because it’s about time I made an honest woman out of him and because slowly but surely the rest of the country is catching up with Iowa of all places in recognizing marriage equality. My wedding gift to Zach? He doesn’t have to fly with me to see my mom in Oregon. I imagine that he’ll use this week of freedom to do things like leave all of the cabinet doors open and drink all of the milk in the refrigerator.

(“Why is this a shotgun wedding?” a co-worker asked. “I had no idea you were even engaged.” And the thing is, I’m just bad about things like this. Not “this” meaning “marriage” — it’s not that I’ve been married dozens of times because I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it — but “this” meaning sharing personal news. For instance, I’m running out of opportunities to lie at work and say that everyone just missed my birthday a month ago because I don’t like the kind of attention office birthday acknowledges bring.)

Anyway. You’re really here to read about Deerbrook and not to read about the details of my wedding. (Which was awesome, p.s. — even after Ruth threw matza at us in front of the courthouse because, as she said, “I forgot to bring birdseed and this is what I had on hand.” “You keep matza in your purse?” I asked her. “Where do you keep your matza?” she countered.) The last I’ll say about my day-old marriage is: it’s already better than the one between Hope and Hester. “That’s where you’re setting the bar?” Zach asked. “Next you’ll say we’re better parents than Diane Downs.” “I like to set achievable goals,” I told him.

Chapter 5 isn’t entirely about the Hopes’ crappy marriage, though. It’s mostly about Margaret’s heartbreak in learning that Mr Enderby is engaged to be married. Hope and Hester had hoped to keep this knowledge from Margaret until some other time, like “never,” but were beaten to the punch by Deerbrook gossip, which found Margaret and spoiled the news for her. Martineau tells us that “If there was a criminal standing above a sea of faces, with the abominable executioner’s hands about his throat, Margaret was, for a time, as wretched as he.”

Come on, Harriet Martineau. That’s a little much, isn’t it? You honestly want us to think that there’s some sort of psychological parity between a man about to be killed — with no hope of being saved, because this is state-sanctioned — and Margaret, whose boyfriend has turned out to be like almost everyone’s first boyfriend? (I.e. kind of a dick.) This isn’t the first time Martineau has made egregious comparisons. For instance, back in chapter 15 of Book 1, Martineau tells us, “The soldier is called brave who cheerfully bears about the pain of a laceration to his dying day; and criminals who, after years of struggle, unbosom themselves of their secret, give tremendous accounts of the sufferings of those years; but I question whether a woman whose existence has been burdened with an unrequited love, will not have to unfold in the next world, a more harrowing tale than either of these.” For goodness sakes, Harriet: bring it down a notch.

(You know who else needs to bring it down a notch? The toddler in 25B. He’s doing that crying where it’s just crying to be crying. His face isn’t even all that contorted with rage or pain or anything. It’s sort of this creepy blank mask and he’s wailing like I’m supposed to care. Maybe I’ll direct the next person who asks if Zach and I are going to be adopting to this parenthetical because: I’m a monster. Maybe not a Diane Downs-esque monster; maybe Diane Downs’s wacky gay neighbor.)

But I digress.

We learn the identity of Enderby’s rumored bride-to-be: A Miss Mary Bruce. This is her first mention in the novel, and we learn that she is “of sufficiently good family to and fortune to make the Rowlands extremely well-satisfied with the match.” So we know that Mrs Rowland is pleased as peaches with this news. In fact, she’s the one who has been doing most of the promoting of this match.

Of course, news like this raises interesting questions. A match such as this, with a woman of standing like Miss Bruce sounds like she is, can’t be a quickie, Vegas-type engagement in between bets at craps before the all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet. What Margaret is now wondering is: How long has this Miss Bruce situation been going on? Since they’ve been in Deerbrook? Since Enderby gave her that book? Since before all of the flirting Enderby has been directing at Margaret?

Sure looks that way.

Margaret decides to check in with Enderby’s secret ex-girlfriend, Miss Young, to see if she knows if the news is true. Miss Young writes back, saying, “I believe it is true. Mrs Rowland pretends to absolute certainty about her brother’s engagement to Miss Bruce; and it is from this that others speak so positively about it.”

Again: I’m not sure how, exactly, to read Miss Young yet. Is she devastated by this news, too? This now puts her two moves away from Enderby. Is she filled with a little bit of spiteful glee that she gets to dash Margaret’s dreams of being Mrs Margaret Enderby? Probably not. I imagine Martineau has decided to make Miss Young almost too perfect, what with the crippling and all, and we’re to always think the best of her. But the novel is more fun if you read Miss Young with a passive-aggressive streak. Otherwise, she’s kind of unbearable.

Taking a page from the Martineau School of Hyperbole (“Without our bachelor’s degree, you might die!!!”), Margaret finds herself thinking that, while she thought she was able to empathize with Hester when the entire village of Deerbrook thought that Mr Hope was dead from his mysterious horse-fall (something that Martineau still hasn’t addressed, after intriguingly suggesting that he was knocked off of his horse by a thrown rock from behind a wall — and this is before the whole stupid voting subplot), but she finds that Hester’s pain then is no match for Margaret’s pain now. Margaret’s thinking essentially boils down to: All Hester had to worry about is if Hope was dead; I have to worry about the fact that my not-even-yet-acknowledged-boyfriend is false or not.

Margaret goes to sleep, replaying every moment she ever had with Enderby and experiencing it in a new light. She has a nightmare about being attacked by a giant, on-fire version of the letter she received back from Miss Young confirming the worst (and I now think that Margaret is a secret drinker; this also makes the novel better than it was before because Margaret, too, is almost a little too perfect), and starts crying out in her sleep. Fortunately, they have Morris, their maid, who comes and wakes her up before she wakes up the whole household. Or at any rate, before Margaret wakes up Hester. Because, as it turns out, Hope was awoken by Margaret’s cries before Morris was, and it’s Hope he urges Morris into Margaret’s room to comfort her. And Martineau tells us that “the terrible secret of the household was no secret to [Morris].”

But considering the way Hope has been acting, and considering what an emotional monster Hester has become, I mean, even Helen Keller knows “the terrible secret of the household.” These are not subtle people.

The next morning, Mrs Rowland stops by because (a) I love her; and (b) she’s very excited to share her news with Margaret because now in her mind there’s no way her brother can be trapped with one of the Ibbotson sisters. She tries to cloak her glee in an apology for the gossiping her mother did in telling about Mr Enderby’s engagement. (“I often say there is no keeping anything quiet in Deerbrook,” she says, awesomely, because you know she’s the one who spread the rumor in the first place because it would do so much more damage that way than if she had been the one to break the news to Margaret.)

Hester doesn’t know that Margaret knows, and doesn’t know that Margaret’s information has been verified by Miss Young. Trying to be helpful, and relieve Margaret of having to talk too much to Mrs Rowland, she asks Mrs Rowland if she had known Miss Bruce for long. “Oh yes!” Mrs Rowland says. “I have long loved Mary as a sister.” I was sort of hoping that at that point Mrs Rowland would push up her sleeve to show of her “Mary Bruce + Mrs Rowland = Best Friends 4EVAH!” tattoo, but it’s not to be. And yet, I’m sure Mrs Rowland totally has one. Hester then asks if it has been a very long engagement, and Mrs Rowland sort of evades the question by saying, “How long the engagement has existed I cannot venture to say. I speak only of the attachment.”

All the while that Hester is getting the worst possible answers for Margaret’s state of mind out of Mrs Rowland, Margaret has been grooming one of Mrs Rowland’s sons as a way to appear busy and uninterested. However, when Mrs Rowland suggests that her brother should probably marry Miss Bruce in Deerbrook, little Ned, whom Margaret has been fussing over, chokes out, “How you do hug me!”

Mrs Rowland finally leaves (she’s got a lot of ground to cover with her red-hot news), leaving Margaret and Hester alone:

Hester stood by the mantel-piece, looking into the fire, and taking no notice of their mutual silence upon this piece of news. At last she muttered, in a soliloquizing tone,

“I do not know — but I am not sure this news is true, after all.”

“After a moment’s pause, Margaret replied,

“I think that is not very reasonable. What must one suppose of everybody else, if it is not true?”

Hester was going to say, “What must we think of him if it is?” but she checked herself. She should not have said what she had; she felt this, and only replied,

“Just so. Yes, it must be true.”

Margaret’s heart once more sank within her at this corroboration of her own remarks.

Chapter 6 brings news both that “Hester was tired of her snow-boots before she saw them” and that Mrs Enderby has been moved from her own home to the home of her daughter. By consolidating households like this, Mrs Rowland has effectively cut Mrs Enderby from Deerbrook society; she is now in charge of whom her mother can see. On the “do not allow” list? The Hopes, the Greys, and Margaret Ibbotson.

It’s towards the end of winter, but still cold enough for one last walk/skate on the frozen river. Mr Hope convinces Hester and Margaret to join him in this outdoor adventure. He’s got a lot of free time on his hands these days, what with having his apothecary practice almost entirely leeched from him because of his voting record. (Yep. That’s still a plot point. Yes: it’s still boring.) While on the frozen lake, the group runs into some of the Greys, who are also using this time for some outdoor ice-river exercising. Young Sydney Grey takes Margaret under his wing, and tries to convince her to walk across the entire river, because everyone else is doing it, and since Margaret can’t vote or own her own property once she’s married, this will be the next best thing to a feeling of accomplishment.

When Sydney and Margaret are halfway across the river, Margaret momentarily thinks “how glad she should be to be accidentally, innocently drowned.” As frustrated as I am with both Ibbotson sisters right now, I can’t say that I disagree. In my version of the novel, Miss Young, in scuba gear, is under the iced river weakening the ice with some kind fo James Bond-ian blow torch.

And whaddaya know: my wish almost comes true — just not in the way I had so hopefully imagined. Margaret does fall through the ice; however, I don’t think it had anything to do with Miss Young and a blow torch; and she doesn’t drown. She just gets soaked and rescued before Mr Hope arrives breathlessly on the scene.

It’s all sort of reminiscent of the horse racing scene in Anna Karenina: As Margaret comes out of her frozen river-induced swoon, one of the first things she hears is Hope groaning, “O, God! my Margaret!” — much like when Anna stands up in a gasp when Vronsky falls off of his horse during a horse race. Feelings are inadvertently revealed. However, it appears that only Margaret understands — kind of — the import of this. At the very least: she’s the only one who heard Hope say “my Margaret.”

Margaret is walked home by someone from the river, and Hope goes to break the news to Hester that her sister survived a plunge through the ice. He has to be careful when sharing this news because of course, if he’s not, Hester will make Margaret’s near-death all about her.

Once home, Hope tries to gently suss out what, exactly, Margaret might have heard. He wants to know if she heard him call her “my Margaret.” Instead, she asks him about something else she heard while reviving from the river:

“Brother,” said she, “what was the meaning of something that I heard some one say, just as I sat up on the bank? ‘There’s a baulk for the doctor! He is baulked of a body in his own house.'”

And yeah: the rest of us want to know what this means, too, since this is the first we’re hearing of it. All we knew was that Hope may have exhibited a bit too much towards his sister-in-law. This is a new development. And Hope’s explanation isn’t necessarily helpful in understanding, either:

“There is a report abroad about me, arising out of the old prejudice about dissection. Some of my neighbours think that dissecting is the employment and passion of my life, and that I rob the church-yard as often as anybody is buried.”

Now — *sigh* Here’s what’s irritating about this development: it truly comes out of nowhere. One would think that gossip of this type would have better legs than it seems to have. And, in some ways, it appears that it does have better legs, since we’re told that it’s a wide-spread rumor. Did it not occur to the Greys or my true love Mrs Rowland to say to the Margaret or Hester, “So happy for you, re: snagging the eligible village apothecary from us! By the way: dude digs corpses. Literally.” But that never happened. And now we have this other piece of information about Hope that makes him a pariah in the village — but only when it seems convenient for Martineau to drag it out. I don’t know guys. I like a lot about this novel; but a lot about this novel bugs.

The sisters try to take this news in stride — but they’re having as tough a time as I am. Hester can’t understand how such vicious rumors get started in the first place. Especially if they’re not true to begin with. (And we really only have Hope’s word right now that the story about him robbing graves is a lie. I hope it ends up not being a lie. This novel could use a lot more Mrs Rowland and a lot more corpse digging.) Eventually Hester says,

“I suppose we shall know, sooner or later, why it is that good people are not to be happy here — and that the more the love one another, the more struggles and sorrows they have to undergo.”

Hope has the answer, born of the existential bleakness that comes from loving your wife’s sister and being forced into a loveless marriage by a village busybody in between corpse robbing and voting to piss people off:

“Is it not to put us off from the too vehement desire of being what we commonly call happy?”

Martineau is an atheist — or, as close to an atheist as one can be in the early part of the nineteenth century. She has little truck with God. Unlike, say, George Eliot, who wants to be atheist as long as it doesn’t make God angry, Martineau herself seems to be the real deal. One of the reasons I feel this with such confidence is how often she casts God in an ironic light. A beautiful example of this is at the end of chapter 6:

“What a heart he has!” she thought [about Edward Hope]. “I was very selfish to fancy him reserved; and I am glad to know that my brother loves me so. It is such a blessing to be his sister, how happy must Hester be — in spite of everything! God has preserved my life, and He has given these two to each other! And oh! how He has shown me that they love me! I will rouse myself and try to suffer less.”

Chapter 7 opens with Hester thinking that she should love Margaret even more, what with her almost dying and all. She also does this because two pages later she’s going to become this weird, incredibly awful bitch to Margaret. When Margaret suggests plans to go visit her friend Miss Young, Hester has a bit of a fit about it:

“Maria had better come here,” observed Hester, quickly; “and then some one else besides Margaret may have the benefit of her conversation. She seems to forget that anybody cares for her besides Margaret. Tell Miss Young she had better fix an evening to come here.”

Because, as you know, it’ll be super-easy for Miss Young, what with her hobbled leg and all. Who knew Hester was so compassionate? (Trick question.) However, even as this news is shared with Hester, that Miss Young is worse now than she was before and is having a harder time getting around, Hester isn’t having it. Margaret finally agrees to visit Miss Young some Thursday in the future. This, though, isn’t any better for Hester, who now feels guilty enough to be passive aggressive to her sister about Margaret waiting so long for the visit — but not so guilty that she, you know, changes any of her behavior for her sister’s benefit. And finally, because of the many chapters of Hester’s awfulness, the sisters have a blow-out fight.

Or, what amounts to a blow-out fight between two gentlewomen in a small village.

“I had far rather you should go to-night, and have done with it, than that you should wait till Thursday, thinking all day long till then that you are obliging me by staying with me. I cannot bear that.”

“I wish I knew what you could bear,” said Margaret. “I wish I knew how I could save you pain.”

The fight just gets better from there, and at one point Margaret even says “Do not make me wish that I had died under the ice yesterday.” I run to pop popcorn at this point because it’s all about to get super real. Margaret finally shares with Hester the extent of Hester’s insane selfishness, and doesn’t sugar-coat the critiques at all. Finally, Hester appeals to her husband, wanting to know if he’s going to stand by and allow Margaret to talk to her like this.

He is.

“For once Hester, you must hear another’s mind; you have often told your own.”

Margaret, gaining a little more control of herself, and feeling a little guilty for being as honest as she has been with her sister, attempts to begin to smooth things over. “I have been selfish,” she says — a little unfairly, I think. But I know the playbook she’s working from well. Often, I will accept the bulk of any blame, regardless of if I deserve it or not, because I hope that it will allow me and…well, whoever…to move on to the next step. I’ll do this especially if I feel that I’m truly in the right, but I know that the person I’m having the altercation with just can’t see it, or won’t see it, or whatever. Margaret even goes on to say, “Wretchedness makes me selfish, I think.”

But when Margaret reaches her hand out in a conciliatory gesture to Hester, Hester knocks it away. She’s still hella pissed at Margaret, and isn’t ready for anything approaching a reconciliation. And this all is too much for Mr Hope, who falls down into a swoon. Because two ladies are fighting.

I know it’s a symptom of ingrained patriarchy, and I know it may not speak highly of me as an evolved male, but dude: seriously. Fainting because two women are fighting in parlour? What address should I use for your subscription to Lady’s Home Journal? In my limited defense, I would also be annoyed at a woman who fainted because of an argument in a parlour. Though that probably doesn’t actually help, does it.

Oh, and all the while this has been going on, the Grey girls have been visiting to make sure that Margaret is truly okay (and also to beg for some scraps of fabric for a quilt they’re making). They leave the house not quite clear on what had happened:

“There the little girls saw him as they passed the half-open door [in his surgery, where he went after recovering from his fainting spell], on their way out with their treasure of chintz and print; and having heard some bustle below, they carried home word that they believed Mr Hope had been doing something to somebody which had made somebody faint.”

I’m sure that won’t come back to haunt the Hopes at all, nope.

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