Ms. Martineau the Skilled Rhetor

With such extreme characters such as Mrs. Rowland and absurd plot points such as burning effigies, it is clear that with Deerbrook Harriet Martineau is having some fun. She has created quite the cast of characters in a quintessential English village, and in this novel we see Martineau exploring many of the same ideas that she treated in the other genres we’ve read. With Deerbrook, we have yet another rhetorical strategy at work, as Martineau uses the realist novel to prod at her different political, social, and philosophical ideas.

In “On Female Education” Martineau adopts a pseudo-male persona, crafting her argument for women’s education in a manner that would likely appeal to a 19th century middle or upper class man. However, once one knows that she is writing from this assumed identity, the language takes on even more of a tongue in cheek quality. I wrote last week about Martineau pushing at the weakening social spheres with this essay, and I would argue that she is taking a similar tactic with Deerbrook. That is, when reading Martineau’s novel, we should keep this subversive rhetorical strategy in mind as she approaches the topics of marriage and—more broadly—women’s roles.

The novel begins in a very Austen-esque manner, the focus of the novel seeming to be marriage and matchmaking. We even have a line that imitates Austen’s memorable opening line:

“It is a fact which few but the despisers of their race like to acknowledge, and which those despisers of their race are therefore apt to interpret wrongly, and are enabled to makes too much of—that it is perfectly natural,—so natural as to appear necessary, —that when young people first meet, the possibility of their falling in love should occur to all the minds present” (17-18).

Here I would argue, Martineau reveals her hand that indeed she is a rhetor who adapts and crafts language carefully and purposefully. Just as the footnote in the Penguin Classics edition notes the similarity between the opening to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, so would Martineau’s contemporary avid readers. Furthermore, also like Austen, Martineau offers this lines on marriage framed by a meddling, busybody mother in Mrs. Grey. Thus Martineau capitalizes on her reader’s associations with Pride and Prejudice to create an at times comical, but all too relatable plot revolving around the complications of courtship and marriage. However, Martineau does not simply rehash Austen’s novel, but rather introduces additional characters and conflicts that suggest that when you throw women’s roles into the mix alongside societal expectations, there are even more sides to the marriage story.

Though I don’t have space to discuss this in its entirety, I would like to draw attention to two characters in particular—two characters absent from Austen’s novel—Mr. Hope and Maria Young. Particularly in the first volume of the novel, Martineau offers an almost painful depiction of Mr. Hope’s struggle to reconcile his beliefs about love and what he perceives as his duty. Repeatedly his adherence to duty butts up against the “sin” he believes “marrying without love” (138) to be, and eventually he chooses Hester—a decision unequivocally deemed a mistake by the narrator. In this initial struggle and indeed through the remainder of the novel, Martineau seems to condemn Mr. Hope’s predicament and thus the societal struggle as a whole. In penning this absurd situation in a realist novel, Martineau suggests that the 19th century reality is in fact that absurd as well.

Briefly, in Maria Young, we have yet another of many perspectives on love and marriage, this time given through the perspective of a ‘spinster’ rendered inadequate for marriage. Though she is harder to pin down, it seems to me that with Maria, Martineau is again questioning contemporary views on love, marriage, and women’s roles. With all of the critiques Martineau offers of the other characters and situations, I hesitate to take Maria’s views as the ideal, even as the narrator seems to present them as so. Maria’s own pain at her situation would seem to complicate the situation.

Thus it would seem that Martineau has yet again taken an intriguing rhetorical approach to exploring a hot topic in 19th century England’s middle-class. I for one am impressed with her sass and rhetorical prowess as she demonstrates just how skilled and entertaining a female writer could be tackling issues quite relevant and important to her. We ought to take as discerning an eye to her novel as we do to her essays and political treatises.

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