After a protracted account of Mrs. Rowland’s malicious exploits and of the suffering that she has brought upon nearly every character in the novel, Deerbrook offers an assessment of her conduct from the novel’s two most admirable characters. In a conversation with Margaret and Hester, Mr. Hope says, “In a city, Mrs. Rowland might have been an ordinary spiteful fine lady. In such a place as Deerbrook, and with a family of rivals’ cousins incessantly before her eyes, to exercise her passions upon, she has ended in being…” (589). Margaret supplies him with the undeservedly gentle phrase, “What she is” (589).
Hope’s assessment is problematic in its apparent justification of the conduct of ordinary spiteful fine ladies who abide in the city, where they are able to get away from those they dislike and where the trouble that they can cause is relatively insignificant. He almost seems to suggest that it does not matter what one’s habits are so long as those habits do not negatively affect one’s neighbors. How is it that Mr. Hope, and perhaps Martineau through Mr. Hope, can so readily excuse Mrs. Rowland’s abominable behavior?
I think the key to answering this question lies in Martineau’s conception of sympathy. The Oxford English Dictionary describes sympathy as “the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling.” In How to Observe Morals and Manners Martineau argues that if a person is without this ability to enter into the experience of another, “there is no point of the universe … where he can meet with his fellow” (31). Thus, she sees sympathy as necessary to any genuine human interaction.
It is not surprising, then, that the hero of Martineau’s novel should demonstrate this essential quality, even toward the novel’s villain. In his assessment of Mrs. Rowland’s behavior, Mr. Hope does not jump to conclusions about her character that are as drastic as the effects of her conduct seem to warrant. Instead, he exercises sympathy toward her, taking her location into consideration and recognizing that her gossip has been so incredibly destructive only because she lives in such a small and intimate community. Mr. Hope’s capacity to enter into Mrs. Rowland’s feelings allows him to explain the behavior that led to otherwise unaccountable consequences.
That being said, Mr. Hope by no means excuses Mrs. Rowland’s malice; he still recognizes that she has inflicted upon Margaret “a cruel injury” (589), and is no doubt aware of the effects that her behavior has had on the whole Deerbrook community. However, Mr. Hope’s sympathetic assessment allows him to see that the magnitude of the damage Mrs. Rowland has caused is owing rather to the smallness of the community than to the enormity of her ill will. In so doing, Mr. Hope provides the reader with a means of understanding the almost comically dramatic effects of the Deerbrook rivalry: not as a grossly exaggerated representation of the power of gossip, but as a critique of gossip and of rivalry in general, even where the situation of those involved keeps it from having so universal an effect.