Maria Young is one of the noble figures of Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook—noble in her aspirations for forming her students’ characters, in her patient bearing of misfortune and pain, and in her intelligent, sympathetic role as an observer of humankind. After reading Martineau’s How to Observe Morals and Manners, I am most interested in Maria’s aptitude for observation. Martineau seems to form Maria’s character in line with the rules for sympathetic observation in How to Observe. However, Maria is not only like a wise traveller from a treatise on travel writing; she is also an image of the observant novelist, embedded in the novel itself. In Maria, then, the author unites two of her own roles: observer of real people, and observer of an unfolding plot in the novel. If Maria is the figure of the observer and the novelist, though, why does she practically disappear about halfway through the novel—and show little insight into the unfolding plot and its characters—until the last chapter?
Early in the novel, Maria is of great interest to the novelist and to her heroines. Margaret and Hester are intrigued by Maria. Margaret, especially, pursues Maria’s company and learns to admire her greatly. Even apart from these attachments, though, Maria stands on her own in the novel. Martineau allows Maria to even narrate her thoughts at length (Vol. 1, Ch. 5). At this time, Maria clarifies her role: “What is it to be alone, and to be let alone as I am? It is to be put into a post of observation on others…. Without daring to meddle, one may stand clear-sighted, ready to help” (47). Martineau thus exalts Maria’s character in the midst of her sufferings from being lame, poor, and without family. Maria remains actively involved in the plot, mainly as Margaret’s confidante and one who wisely perceives the troubles and joys of those around her.
After about the mid-point of the novel, however, Maria retreats. She is closed off in her own rooms in the town, and she ceases to have her own voice. In the final chapter of the novel, Maria returns to the forefront to reflect on her solitary life and offer gems of wisdom. The final scene is of the two lovers, Margaret and Philip, walking and talking about Maria. Hers is the last proper name in the book.
If Maria is a figure for Martineau herself, then does Maria’s retreat from the storyline reflect Martineau’s own lack of confidence in her plot? Could Martineau, a first-time novelist, be signaling an uncertainty or lack of control over the problems she has created in Deerbrook? Why does Maria return to Martineau’s interest at the end, rather inconclusively? Couls she be the real heroine?