Margaret can’t wait to tell Maria that she’s engaged to Philip Enderby because Margaret is a great friend who listens when people tell her things like, “Philip Enderby left me high and dry after my accident–” (I’m paraphrasing) “–but I still sort of have a thing for him.” I mean, why wouldn’t Margaret want to race right out to Ol’ Gimpy Maria and rub her nose in her happiness — especially since Maria can’t get away easily. Maybe one of the Grey kids could immortalize the scene in silhouette for Maria’s fireplace screen. Right next to the execution of Charles I.
(Of course, I think Maria actually wants to hear about the engagement, not because she’s happy for Margaret, but because Maria gets some kind of perverse satisfaction out of things like this in her life. Why else is she friends with Margaret? We didn’t talk much about Maria’s motivation when we met last Tuesday; I’d be very interested, though, to hear if anyone else reads Maria with the same cynical eye that I do. That might be pretty impossible; I’m a monster. I believe that people don’t do things that they don’t get something out of, and Maria might be getting some emotional need met out of her long-sufferingness.)
When Enderby hears about Margaret’s need to bring Maria into their confidence, Martineau gives us an interesting he-said/she-said version of the Maria/Enderby situation. We’ve heard Maria’s side already: that there was a serious flirtation between her and Enderby, that she considered Enderby to probably be “the one,” and that everything crashed down after her terrible wagon accident. Now we get to hear how Enderby presents the scenario:
“Time was,” said Philip, “when some boyish dreams connected themselves with Maria Young—only transiently, and quite at the bottom of my own fancy. I never spoke of them to any one before, nor fully acknowledged them to myself. She was the first sensible woman I ever knew—the first who conveyed to me any conception of what the moral nature of a woman may be, under favourable circumstances. For this I am under great obligations to her; and this is all the feeling that I brought out of our intercourse. It might possibly have come to more, but that I disliked her father excessively, and left off going there on that account.”
That doesn’t entirely gel with what we know of Maria’s side. And it’s tough to write about this now, after I know what happens to Enderby and how he ends up turning out, without prejudice. A first-time reader could be forgiven for honestly thinking that maybe Maria is the one who made too much of what was between the two of them. That is, until Martineau gives us this last bit of Philip’s assy monologue:
“What a selfish wretch I was in those days! I can hardly believe it now; but I distinctly remember rejoicing, on hearing of her accident, that my esteem for her had not passed into a warmer feeling, as I should then have suffered so much on her account.”
Seriously, dude? You’re going to turn Maria’s crippling accident into good news for you?
Oh, and then there’s the time Philip Enderby said this: “Maria Young had not the slightest knowledge of her influence over me—superficial and transient as it was. I never conveyed it to her by word or act; and I am thankful I did not.”
Margaret is going to spend a lot of time pining for Philip Enderby. And she has already been through a weird Enderby tantrum where he grouched at her about not trusting him more, even after being told by Enderby’s sister and mother that he was engaged elsewhere. Why she doesn’t take this business — especially so soon after the drubbing — and think, “Spinster has a nice ring to it…” I don’t know.
The one brief bright light is that Margaret may be a little on to what kind of revisionism Enderby is pulling: “Margaret had no doubt of Philip’s full conviction of what he was saying; but she was far from certain that he was not mistaken.” She decides that instead of telling Maria in person, she’ll write a letter. I think the pain lasts longer in a letter, anyway. So, Great Job Margaret!
There’s an etiquette to sharing an engagement with others. You can’t just run out, flipping the bird to all of those people who called you the “plain sister” and laughing in the face of those statistics that say that it’s more likely that a nineteenth century woman will die in a cholera epidemic than would get married after the age of 19. The sisters’ parents being dead, and that one brother not making it out of childhood alive, Margaret will have to tell the Greys first, of course. Then there’s Philip’s family (Mrs Enderby, Mrs Rowland). In fact, Hester, Margaret, and Hope are on their way to the Rowland’s, to call on Mrs Enderby (who, as you may remember, has been moved from her own home to the Rowlands because Mrs Rowland always knows what’s best and I won’t hear a word against her) (also: Mrs Enderby has made it a lot farther in the novel than I expected back when she had her first bought of Vague Victorian Illness That Furthers the Plot). They run into Mr Rowland, who gives his congratulations on the news.
This congratulating puts Mr Rowland in an awkward position, because his wife, as you know, has been spreading the word all over the country that her brother is engaged to the never-before-met Mary Bruce. (She sounds like a Girls’ Gym Teacher, right? If you know what I’m saying? Like, she wears really comfortable shoes? Owns a lot of Melissa Etheridge albums that she plays for her cats? A lesbian: you guys, I think Mary Bruce is a lesbian.) Mr Rowland is the first of the Rowland household to acknowledge the engagement between Philip and Margaret. Martineau is building up to something awesome when we see how Mrs Rowland handles all of this.
(Someone during the discussion asked, “Why do you love Mrs Rowland so much?” And before I could give my answer — “Because if I don’t, she’ll spread rumors about me and besides, how can you not love a character so viciously wonderful?” — someone else answered for me, saying, “He always loves the awful women.” And that’s true, isn’t it? I guess it’s pretty predictable at this point: as soon as a bitchy woman is introduced — be it Mrs Rowland or Aunt Norris or Lady Audley who’s not so much bitchy as much as she’s murderous, or Lescount from No Name — you pretty much can guarantee that I’m going to be in love with her. I acknowledged this a little during the discussion, too, saying that what I love in Mrs Rowland specifically are the parts of me that she seems to represent: the petty, evil, manipulative parts. Not that I’m some monster away from the discussion who’s able to hide it all for the hour-and-a-half we meet each month; I don’t think anyone can hide his true nature from others for that long. But especially in a novel like this, when we’re given heroes who are either entirely too perfect — Hope, Margaret, Maria — or entirely too diagnostic — Hester — it’s nice to have someone strong to cheer on in a black hat.)
Mrs Enderby is still not doing great, so I’m not holding out much hope for her finishing the novel. That lady’s tenacious, though, I’ll give her that. Once the party reaches the Rowlands, Philip goes ahead to prepare Mrs Enderby for the visit, or at least to prepare her for the fact that a visit is about to happen, because what he doesn’t tell her is that he’s engaged and a whole mob of Ibbotsons/Hopes are descending on her because the ailing love nothing more than a whole lot of emotional excitement and hoop skirts.
It’s all a bit much for Mrs Enderby, who isn’t quite sure where to direct her attentions and who doesn’t really understand why, after several days of no visitors, half the population of Deerbrook decides to stop by today. And in the middle of all of this Hester realizes that the attention is not on her and her f’ed up marriage, so she asks Mrs Enderby if Mr Hope has been by, because she was hoping to run into him, because she has a letter she wants to give him from his brother in India; in fact, she doesn’t just want to give Hope the letter, she’s very anxious to give Hope the letter, so if Mrs Enderby could just take a moment from being ill and overwhelmed and think about whether or not Hope had been by because Hester’s got this letter, see, that’s from India, and if he had already come by then she won’t leave the letter but if he hasn’t come by then maybe she’ll just wait because it’s likely he will come by and when he does, she’ll give him this letter has she mentioned the letterfromIndiabecauseshehasthisletterfromIndiaforherhusbandifhedoesordoesn’tcomeby–
And Mrs Enderby starts crying. Sobbing actually. And Hester’s all, “I don’t know what’s up with that lady, but all of her crying’s not getting this letter from India read by my husband.” Philip starts crying, too, and I think that’s another red flag for Margaret because I’ve bought into sexism and patriarchy because it was actually purchased for me by the world and I wasn’t given the receipt. I find crying men to be a bit…much. My only saving grace, really, if you’ll even allow me to have one (and you don’t have to, certainly; it’s not like I’m earning it) is that I find crying in general to be a bit too much. I’m probably broken.
The upshot of all of this is: Philip and Margaret don’t tell Mrs Enderby yet that they’re engaged to be married. Hester and Mr Rowland beat a hasty retreat to the garden. Margaret insists on Mrs Enderby kissing her before she’ll leave. And finally, when Philip composes himself to the point where he doesn’t look like a spats-wearing baby, he and Margaret walk arm-in-arm through the gardens until they find Hester and Rowland. Hester wants to know if they’ve heard anything at all, in the five minutes they’ve all been separated, about her husband because, you know: letter, and at this point I remember thinking: Maybe Hope has died and that’s what Martineau is trying to accomplish in this scene by getting Hester all worked up. And then I realized the metaphorical significance of writing things in the margins like “Hope has died?” And then I thought, “Why do people let me talk to them about books at all when it takes me almost half the book to catch on to something like that?” And then it occurred to me that maybe you all simply think I’m too pretty to be honest with, and that made me happy.
As it turns out, Hope isn’t dead. (See: there it is again!) He finally arrives and Hester is finally able to hand over that @#$% letter. Martineau tells us that Hester “gloried in being, for the first time, the medium through which this rare pleasure reached him” and I realize, for a moment, the kind of jerk I’m being.
If we all take a step back from Hester’s annoying personality, and think about the situation she’s in: it sucks for her. Hester is truly in love with her husband (breaking one of the rules we learned when we read The Princess of Cleves). She’s been in love with him almost from the moment she met him, and she was overjoyed when he proposed. But, I think because of Hester’s thin-skin, she’s also probably more emotionally attuned to people and situations than others in the novel. And she has to feel that something isn’t right between her and her husband. He’s not really in love with her; he’s in love with her sister. A lot of Hester’s emotional neediness is borne from her deep desire to make herself loved by her husband. This scene with the letter, which I’ve characterized as a little annoying, is actually more than a little heartbreaking. I’m not going to replace Mrs Rowland with Hester any time soon as my Life Partner; but, at this moment at least, maybe I’ll not be so harsh on her.
The letter from Hope’s brother, Frank, presents a challenge: it’s in response to the letter Hope sent that sang loudly the praises of the plain sister, Margaret. Frank is excited to soon have a new sister named Margaret, and he can’t wait to meet her. Letters from family, at least from the nineteenth century and earlier, weren’t necessarily the private communications we might think of them now. Letters from family were ways to share general news about locations and events. It was customary to read those letters aloud — unless, of course, they contained private family news, or glowing praises of your wife’s sister. So, when Hope is asked to read the letter, he has to do some serious editing, since most of the letter is about Margaret, and Hester hasn’t necessarily proven herself to be the kind of lady who would be able to take a situation like this well. I think it goes a little something like this: “Dear Edward: How are you? I am fine.–” skip skip skip skip skip “Well, that’s it for me. India is hot. I hope you write soon about” skip skip skip “Your brother, Frank.” After he has read the unredacted parts to the group, Hope sneaks away and burns the letter. He knows that if he takes it home, there’s no safe place. Letters like that always have a habit of showing up at the most inopportune times, found by your wife while she’s searching the house because that’s what she does: frets and snoops.
Later, when it’s just Hope and Hester, she says about Frank’s letter: “We have plenty of time, and I am not at all tired: so now read me the rest.” And rather than dragging the whole thing out (“The rest of what?” “The letter.” “What letter?” “Your letter from Frank.” “Frank? Frank who?”) Hope simply tells Hester that he has read her all of the letter he was able to, and that he can’t share any more of it with her. This, of course, sets Hester off:
“Oh! call me your housekeeper at once—for I am not your wife—and breathe not upon my conscience—look not into my heart—for what are they to you? I reclaim from you, as your servant, the power I gave you over my soul, when I supposed I was to be your wife.”
Hester — rightly, actually — claims that Hope is distrustful of his own wife, and this strikes her as wrong. She can’t understand why he would need to keep any secrets from her at all. But I think she can understand, and this just reinforces in her soul the fact that something is not right about her marriage. Hope, though, tries to be crafty and turn it on her:
“But do you not see that you have now been distrusting me—not I you? Shall I begin to question whether you love me? Could you complain of injustice if I did, when you have been tempting my honour, insulting my trust in you, and wounding my soul? Is this the love you imagine I cannot estimate and return? This is madness, Hester. Rouse yourself from it. Waken up the most generous part of yourself. We shall both have need of it all.”
I can’t tell what Martineau is trying to do here. Hope is clearly the hero. He’s the Job figure upon whom all manner of awful things happen, and he (mostly) remains upright and just. Also, knowing what I know about what happens later in the novel, I don’t know that I’m justified in thinking that Hope is in the wrong here, at least according to Martineau. But I can’t help but think that he’s being truly rotten, sneaky, and disingenuous. Hester actually is completely justified in distrusting Hope in this manner: He is being less than forthcoming about what was in the letter. Regardless of how Hester will take it, it seems wrong to lie to her. And Hester also has every reason to question Hope’s love, since it’s actually not necessarily directed towards Hester, but towards her sister. It’s similar to the issue I have about the narrator’s castigating of Mrs Rowland — and not just because Mrs Rowland and I are going to vacation together on Fire Island. Mrs Rowland is being cast as a vicious gossip and a liar; and while she’s definitely the former, she’s not necessarily the latter. And in this case with Hester and Hope: Hope is the bad guy here, but Martineau is either employing a subtlety that’s too elusive for my unsophisticated brain, or she really doesn’t understand her own narrative at all. As much as I may dislike Hester, I don’t think she should be treated the way she’s being treated. I also don’t like the track that the narrative is taking in suggesting that it’s Hester who needs to learn a lesson about emotional moderation and trust. I don’t see Hope being forced to learn any lessons at all (unless it’s don’t marry the wrong sister, no matter what Mrs Grey might say).
In wrapping up the conversation/argument/gaslighting, Hope tells Hester that “Rough and trying times are coming, love, and I must have your support. Trouble is coming—daily and hourly annoyance, and no end of it that I can see: and poverty, perhaps, instead of the ease to which we looked forward when you married me. I do not ask you whether you can bear these things, for I know you can. I shall look to you to help me to keep my temper.” That last bit seems to be about as effective as asking that one fat guy to help you count Weight Watchers’ points, because I don’t know that Hester is the person to go to for emotional temperance. But this is going to be the key to Hester’s character, I think: Martineau is going to show us how Hester blooms during times of great strife and consternation, and how she wilts and reverts back to her former character when she’s given any time for quiet reflection.
To wrap up this installment, I’ll say that what I find interesting about Martineau’s writing in this novel is the fact that, while I disagree with a lot of her narrative choices, and I feel that the story gets away from her too often, I truly believe in a lot of these characters. She’s given them enough personality that they live on in my head — sometimes frustratingly so — long after I’ve placed my bookmark between chapters.