Virgin Affections and Incestuous Virgins: The Gallant Gents of “Deerbrook”

“You do not disapprove of the little hidden tokens with which a man may make his feelings secretly known where he wishes them to be understood…You do not disapprove of a more gentle and mysterious way of saying, ‘I love you,’ than looking full in one another’s face and declaring it like a Quaker upon affirmation?”

“My Margaret!”

“Innocent in soul and conscience, I know, but no longer with virgin affections — you give her to me for your mutual security and consolation.”

“If you pollute and agonize her imagination with these vile fancies…you…deprive Margaret of all that life contains for her…you may turn Margaret’s brain.”

stealing hearts Literally. #mrhope

Let’s be honest. The men of Deerbrook…they’re a little shady. Hope is an incestuous bastard who spends the entire length of the novel attempting to develop the hots for his wife and to cease having the hots for her sister. Philip? A man intent on “virgin affections.” Not only must his wife be as virtuous as the Day I dawn of Creation, but she must also not have had any significant crushes. Ever. She must not have ever made sheep’s eyes at the boy next door. Must never have accepted “little hidden tokens” from any man but him *snicker* and — not only that — she must not be told who she is suspected of having once loved because God Forbid Philip and Margaret should be as honest and open as Quakers!

These men point, however, to a success in Martineau’s writing, a cleverly subversive depiction of human foibles, for both men and women. Hester — the beautiful one — is temperamental and weak, a paragon of virtue in strife and the apex of annoyance in luxury. Martineau refuses to equate full beauty with full virtue. Margaret, the slightly spacey, intellectual sister, is frustratingly virtuous, which makes Philip even more ridiculous. Throughout the entire novel, we can sense that Hope really, truly made the wrong decision when he allowed himself to be manipulated into marrying Hester. Philip is a hypocritical player (virgin affections, anyone? Poor Maria), and Hope changes from a young, passionate doctor to a woman tamer, a man who spends the entire novel calming the nerves and “ssshhhh”ing the sisters he married. Not one reader is convinced he loves Hester even a little bit as much as he loved Margaret at the end, but…that’s what he says.

I think that these men are Martineau’s anti-heroes (but not the good kind). Martineau purposefully rewards the wrong men and punishes the wrong women to show readers that though domestic happiness can be achieved, it happens outside of marriage. The affection and passion Philip and Margaret feel for one another is shown to be imperfect and secondary; Philip plays Maria, shows himself entirely imperceptive in regards to women’s feelings and affections, and is cowardly to the point of being incapable of conversing with a woman when he believes she does not have “virgin affections,” as if her tainted heart should not be allowed to express itself in his direction.

Hope, on the other hand, pays for his social and constitutional weakness by receiving the lesser woman. And it is true — Martineau depicts Hester as a lesser woman, though the more beautiful. Hester is capricious and temperamental, lacking the philosophical rigour and maternal warmth of her sister. He is damned by his emasculated decisions, and suffers the consequences of becoming…normal. Unremarkable. Unheroic. Uninspired, and un-passionate.

Martineau uses these men and their imperfections to point to happiness and fulfillment outside of marriage. It is clear by the end that Hester is happiest as a mother and Margaret is best fulfilled by social duties. Industry, communal support, and maternity in a variety of forms is what leads to happiness for women, not marriage.

And the men?

Don’t hold your breath, Ladies. Martineau holds no illusions for her heroes in marriage, and by the end…neither do they.

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