How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Deerbrook proceeds as expected; two sisters—one beautiful, one vibrant, and both virtuous—fall in love and after an appropriate amount of tumult and turmoil, find themselves happily married to attractive, upstanding men able to support them in the style to which they have become accustomed. Up to this point, the book could easily have been written by Austen. However, Martineau includes Maria Young and complicates our reading, leaving us to wonder what her role in the novel really is supposed to be.

Maria is a rare and elusive creature: a contented governess. She teaches the children of the rival Grey and Rowland families and is described as solitary and alone. Injured in an accident that killed her father and her prospects for traditional happiness, she nevertheless finds that “her own quiet speculations were material enough for cheerfulness” (loc. 599). She remains thus throughout the book. While she becomes somewhat upset that her former love interest favors her new friend, Maria nevertheless maintains her equilibrium throughout the book, pointing out at the end that “there are glimpses of heaven for me in solitude, as for you in love” (loc. 8772). Ultimately, she ends the book as she begins it—single, ostensibly content, and gainfully employed.

Why have Maria in the book, then? There are practical reasons. For instance, she shares background information on various characters in the book, and she provides intelligent conversation for the sisters. More, she provides an outlet for the sisters to show generosity, kindness, and the importance of community, as demonstrated when the riot occurs outside of the corner house; after the chaos, they remember Maria, send Mr. Hope to her, and discover she had been knocked down and seriously injured. Martineau emphasizes the importance of this act to her audience, stating “It was indeed a blessing that some one had thought of Maria” (loc. 5459).

Maria’s function, however, proves to be much more than that of convenience and moral expression for the sisters. She is a steady character who creates a space for herself as an observer from the beginning, early watching the sisters, her charges, and Mr. Hope picking cowslips and noting, “How I love to overlook people,–to watch them acting unconsciously, and speculate for them!” (loc. 572). As she does so, Maria reflects some of the premises set forth in Martineau’s How to Observe Morals and Manners, including reinforcing Martineau’s recommendation to avoid “all indulgence of peremptory decision” (HOMM 9) as illustrated by her reflections on Lord Byron’s reasons why he “could not write poetry on Lake Leman, but found he must wait till he was within four walls” (loc. 562). While specifically referencing landscape here, it moves quickly—in the very same paragraph—to a discussion of observing the children and her new friends.

She goes further in the same paragraph, however, to note the responsibilities of such a post, and in so doing possibly elucidates some of the underlying motivation in works such as How to Observe Moral and Manners and Society in America. Maria notes that “Every situation has its privileges and its obligations” (loc. 581). Her situation happens “to be alone, and to be let alone,” which results in her “post of observation on others” (loc. 581). She views her circumstances as placing her in this specific situation, but she goes on to observe that such a role is pointless “if it does not make me feel and act” (loc. 584). While she is wary of “meddl[ing],” Maria nevertheless plans to “stand clear-sighted, ready to help” (loc. 589). Martineau notes in How to Observe Morals and Manners the importance of “sympathy” in the observer (143), but we see Martineau’s desire to be “ready to help” most clearly in Society in America, where she uses her position to intercede on behalf of the abolitionists.

It’s tempting to try to identify Maria as Martineau herself and an honorable nod to the reality that wonderful women do not all get married. However, Maria Young cannot be Martineau’s double, any more than either of the sisters can; each woman shows personal characteristics that Martineau’s notes in her autobiography. However, Maria does function as the kindly philosophical observer motivated to do good where she is, and as such, she helps us further our understanding of Martineau’s view of her role and involvement in observation and politics.

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