“There was Nobody in the Church”: Corporate Worship in Vanity Fair

The titular quote comes from the scene where George and Amelia are getting married. Historically, in the church, the marriage liturgy is a sacrament that involves a communal affirmation; at a point in the Anglican liturgy, the congregation is asked to agree that they will support the marriage that they are witnessing and reinforce the couple’s promise to remain faithful to each other. Yet in Vanity Fair, the community is not present at the marriages. Thackeray writes, “there was nobody in the church” except Amelia’s close family, Dobbin, and the parson. And nobody in the community, save perhaps for Dobbin, acts to keep George and Amelia’s marriage together; rather, the community (in the shape of Becky and Rowden) seems bent on tearing their already tenuous union apart.

The problems of Vanity Fair, the novel seems to argue, occur at least partly because there is “nobody in the church.” Churches appear often, but they are hardly ever taken seriously. Thackeray is most often poking fun at the hypocrisy of the clergy, who themselves are not authentically “in the church.” He mocks the affected piety of Mr Bute, who reads a pointed sermon written by his wife and has no idea what it means. The church is a place that allows Rebecca to make eyes at various men during the sermon, and she jokingly presents the profession of clergymen as a last resort to resolve Rowden’s outstanding debts. Church doesn’t seem to be worth attending; nor is it a site of holy reverence. Instead of visiting the church, Mr. Osborne goes into his study to read the news; Sir Pitt sleeps in; and old Mrs. Crowley just doesn’t find it amusing. And Mrs. Sheepshanks, the Dissenter– who vocally claims to be the holiest of the bunch– switches parsons almost every week, just as she goes from quack doctor to quack doctor. All of these people, even those who claim holiness, are equally interested in the values of Vanity Fair; they are servants of Mammon rather than servants of God.

The one exception to the theme of “nobody in the church” occurs during the battle of Waterloo. Suddenly, when their husbands’, lovers’, and brothers’ lives are threatened, the women of the town respond with an outpouring of sudden piety: “Women rushed to the churches, and crowded the chapels, and knelt and prayed on the flags and steps.” For a moment, we catch a glimpse of the church universal, united through time by liturgical practice. Even though Amelia is too sick to pray in the church, Mrs. O’Dowd comes and reads her sermons, even though she doesn’t understand the “long and abstruse… Latin words.” As she reads the sermons, she has “Amelia and the wounded ensign for a congregation. The same service was read on that day in twenty thousand churches at the same hour; and millions of British men and women, on their knees, implored protection of the Father of all.” In this moment, it seems the practices of the church are uniting a nation in petition to God. The church universal is bigger than the corrupt and hypocritical parsons; and  an Irish woman reading sermons to a sick widow and wounded soldier can recreate a congregation.

Yet even in this seemingly transcendent moment, the narrator withdraws from this vision and calls into question the possibility of union with others. Those who are reading the sermons in Britain and praying for the soldiers “did not hear the noise which disturbed our little congregation at Brussels”; their prayers are less fervent and less affected by the immediate presence of war.

Indeed, the farther one gets from the war itself, the less personal it becomes. Mrs. Crowley reads the newspaper casualty list and battle accounts for entertainment, while Amelia reads to discover George’s fate. Even the church is not enough to unite a people in empathy or piety; experiences are personal and traumatic only to those directly affected by them.

If Vanity Fair’s society as a whole cannot experience unity through the practices of the church, then what about Christianity itself? Though Thackeray critiques the church, he withholds his criticism from Christianity as a whole. It seems his problem is not with the tenets of faith, but the people who pretend to practice them in order to gain personal profit. The only exception to this rule– the point where his satire perhaps touches on the faith itself– occurs during Amelia’s ineffective prayers: “Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.”

What is the point of Amelia’s prayers? They don’t avail much. George’s death, juxtaposed so closely with Amelia’s act of prayer, highlights the painful irony and the ineffectiveness of her pious practice. Is this a critique of prayer as a whole? Or is Thackeray perhaps doing something else?

I wonder, however, if the reader’s reaction here is not relief that God does not answer Amelia’s prayer and save George’s life. We, if not Amelia, can see how harmful and despicable George is; we see him fawning over Becky and breaking the marriage covenant. Death comes for George justly; he receives the consequences of his sins even as he thinks he will live forever. And we eventually learn to be grateful that George is dead, so that he didn’t run off with Becky and further break Amelia’s heart. Amelia can end up with Dobbin, and the novel can end happily for her despite her unanswered prayer.

Perhaps this passage of unanswered prayer exists to highlight the overall providence of the novel. Even at the point where Amelia’s prayers are left unanswered, the author-god seems to be working everything out for her good. She must suffer to get there, but she ends up at a place that’s worth getting to.

If there is “nobody at the church” in Vanity Fair, does the novel itself act as a kind of church for the churchless? It seems that Vanity Fair is teaching us how to read not only the novel, but also our own lives, just as a sermon often uses a story or parable to illustrate truth. Do we enter to learn from the folly of others, and exit with the motivation to avoid such folly in our own lives? If Amelia’s prayers are unanswered because she doesn’t know what’s best for herself, Thackeray’s novel may perform a kind of theodicy, answering the problem of evil with a notion of ultimate providence. Perhaps this is the perspective from which the novel means us to read the “little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history.”

Intellectual Equals: Why Mr. Knightley Needs to be Wrong

Emma and Knightley’s relationship changes significantly in chapter 38 of the novel, when both admit they have been wrong and have misread others. Emma’s apology here is fuller than it had been before, and she admits that she was “completely mistaken” about Elton, when Knightley had discovered his “littleness.” She concludes this acknowledgement without fully admitting her own culpability in the matter: “I was fully convinced of his being in love with Harriet. It was through a series of strange blunders!” (222). Her apology, which places the cause of her misperception in the passive voice, and references equally ambiguous “strange blunders” does not, perhaps, take full ownership of her mistake. But, at this point, this is perhaps the best we can expect from Emma, and it does show a trajectory of character growth.

More remarkable than Emma’s apology, however, is Knightley’s apology that follows. He says, “And, in return for your acknowledging so much, I will do you the justice to say, that you would have chosen for him [Elton] better than he has chosen for himself. Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities…An unpretending, single-minded, artless girl– infinitely to be preferred by any man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton” (222). With this statement, he revises his earlier judgment that Harriet “is not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself. At her age she can have no experience, and with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her. She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all.” By acknowledging his own failure to judge Harriet well, Knightley reveals that he, too, is wrong (and this is the first of several misperceptions that he owns by the end of the novel– including the misperception that Emma cared for Frank; once freed from jealousy, he also allows for Frank’s potential and admits that jealousy has blinded him).

Why does it matter that Knightley is wrong, especially when Emma provides such an immature contrast? I argue that the novel’s key problem– set up in the first chapter– is Emma’s quest for an intellectual equal. Emma begins “handsome, clever, and rich,” but she also starts out by losing a friend. Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston had been her intellectual equal, but even she has not challenged Emma enough; Knightley criticizes her for being too indulgent of Emma’s whims. Harriet Smith is too admiring and sycophantic to be an equal, and Jane Fairfax (who by all accounts should be friends with Emma) is too reserved. Yet at the beginning of the novel, Knightley is also not Emma’s equal. He does not value Emma’s opinion, and sees himself as her intellectual superior.

Knightley’s belief that he is superior to Emma keeps him from filling the heroine’s lack, and he must admit that he is wrong in order to level the playing ground. After their disagreement about Harriet and Mr. Martin, Emma complains, “To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.” “Yes,” said he, smiling—“and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.” She replies, “Does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?” Though Knightley acknowledges that their judgments are now “nearer,” Emma points out that they are “not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.” This scene clearly sets up that Knightley sees himself as sixteen years older, and Emma is both “a pretty young woman and a spoiled child.”

To make himself fit for Emma, then, Knightley’s acknowledgements of wrong are key. They show his transformation from the superior mentor to the eligible marriage partner. He fulfills a need that Emma is unable to find in her female community: someone who is able to match her intelligence, while at the same time forming an honest recognition of her faults and his own.

“Let’s Just be Friends”: Camilla and the Circumscribed Desire for Male-Female Friendship

Throughout Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla, the societal constraints on male-female friendship quickly become clear. Once Camilla reaches marriageable age, the possibility for friendship with Edgar is completely erased– the persecutions of Mrs. Margland and Indiana ascribe romantic meaning even to something as small as a geranium. There is no longer room for kindness untainted by suppositions about one’s romantic affections.

Does Camilla understand that male-female friendship is impossible in her society? On one level, it appears that she does– she recognizes, for example, that there may be something improper, or at least unusual, about Mrs. Burlinton’s intimate correspondence with her mysterious friend (who, spoiler alert, turns out to be the infamous Bellamy). Yet she defends her friend’s practice despite Edgar’s condemnation:

"Yet, in the conversations she held with him [Edgar]
from time to time, she frankly related the extraordinary attachment of
her new friend to some unknown correspondent, and confessed her own
surprise when it first came to her knowledge.

Edgar listened to the account with the most unaffected dismay, and
represented the probable danger, and actual impropriety of such an
intercourse, in the strongest and most eloquent terms; but he could
neither appal her confidence, nor subdue her esteem. The openness with
which all had originally and voluntarily been avowed, convinced her of
the innocence with which it was felt, and all that his exhortations
could obtain, was a remonstrance on her own part to Mrs. Berlinton.

She found that lady, however, persuaded she indulged but an innocent
friendship, which she assured her was bestowed upon a person of as much
honour as merit, and which only with life she should relinquish, since
it was the sole consolation of her fettered existence" (Book 6, Ch. 12).

 

From her defense of this uncommon practice, what are we as readers supposed to gain? On one hand, this sets up Camilla’s fateful naivete. No matter where she looks for friendship– Sir Sedley, Hal Westwyn, and even crusty old Lord Valhurst– she is not safe from romantic proclamations, and it is naive for her to even think so. Her kind, but merely friendly, actions cause others, including Edgar, to label her a “coquette.” There’s no such thing as the “friend zone” for Camilla, and she’s always the last to realize that she is sending the wrong social messages.

On the other hand, could Burney be setting up a social critique of the societal constraints set up to prevent and circumscribe male-female friendships? Every time Edgar and Camilla have a chance to talk to each other, they are interrupted and prevented from communicating fully. Even Edgar has this desire to remain Camilla’s friend, to give her counsel (of course, though, this is tainted by romantic interest). When he warns her against Mrs. Arlbery and Mrs. Burlinton, he consistently appeals to her on the basis of friendship:

"Tell me, candidly, sincerely tell me, can you
condescend to suffer an old friend, though in the person of but a young
man, to offer you, from time to time, a hint, a little counsel, a few
brief words of occasional advice? and even, perhaps, now and then, to
torment you into a little serious reflection?" (Book 4, ch. 1).

It seems that both Edgar and Camilla are longing for a different kind of relationship, or at least a venue for more open communication between the sexes. If so, would this perhaps change our reading of the novel from a critique of Camilla’s and Edgar’s respective misreading/naivete to a critique of their society’s constraints upon friendship?

Reading Pamela’s Private/Public Literacy

Gerard Terborch, “Woman Writing a Letter,” 1655

Pamela’s first letter to her parents sets up many of the themes for the remainder of the novel: Pamela’s duty to her parents, her love for writing, her thankfulness to God, and her distinction from other servants– along with potentially untoward advances by Mr. B (“and he took me by the Hand; yes, he took me by the Hand before them all” (11)). In the postscript to her first letter, she tells her parents that Mr. B has frightened her by entering her dressing room and desiring to inspect her writing. Confused, she fears that he will be angry, but he states, “I am not angry with you for writing such innocent matters as these: though you ought to be wary what tales you send out of a family…. Why, Pamela, you write a very pretty hand, and spell tolerably too. I see my good mother’s care in your learning has not been thrown away upon you” (12).

This intrusion in the first chapter sets up an interesting problem: Pamela’s developing literacy cannot stay private. But, as her father questions, why should Pamela’s literacy be a matter of public discussion at all? “Why should he take such a poor girl as you by the hand, as your letter says he has done twice? Why should he stoop to read your letter to us; and commend your writing and spelling? And why should he give you leave to read his mother’s books?” This is indeed the question in the reader’s mind as s/he delves through these volumes of Pamela’s letters. Why is such a private activity such as literacy– reading or writing to oneself– suddenly of interest, not only to Mr. B, but to Pamela’s fellow servants, Mrs. Jervis, Mrs. Jewkes, Lady Davers, and then finally society at large?

I don’t have a particularly settled answer to this question, but I do have a potential method to discover the answer. Perhaps we can turn to rhetorical criticism and read Richardson’s Pamela as a literacy narrative, using the framework established by Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen. Eldred and Mortensen define this process as follows: “When we read for literacy narratives, we study how the text constructs a characters’ ongoing, social progress of language acquisition” (512). This inherent assumption– that language acquisition, in Pamela’s case and in all cases, is social– seems counterintuitive because Pamela’s writing (especially when she switches from letters to journal entries) is meant to be private. However, it seems that Pamela’s literacy from the beginning is much more public than she intends it to be.

We could also explore Pamela’s experience within the framework of the literacy myth: the assumption that literacy necessarily equals a direct path to social progress. In one way, Richardson’s text affirms the literacy myth– it is her letters that cause Mr. B. to fall for her, and which lead to her eventual social rise. Yet in another way, literacy dislodges her from her social place, just as Eldred and Mortensen discuss with relation to Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Pamela’s story could also be read as a narrative of socialization: “stories that chronicle a character’s attempt to enter a new social (and discursive) arena” (Eldred and Mortensen 513).

We might also explore Pamela’s relationship to generational literacy. If female literacy is so transgressive, what is the significance that ostensibly both her father and mother can read and write, since she addresses some letters only to her mother? Is there an added significance to the fact that she did not learn literacy from them, but from her mistress? Does this change the kind of literacy that Pamela possesses?

We also might use Deborah Brandt’s idea of literacy sponsors to recognize and explore the communal nature of Pamela’s literacy — for example, some of Pamela’s sponsors are her mistress, Mr. Longman (the kindly gentleman that gives her writing paper), her father and mother who encourage the letters, and even Mr. B by the end of the book. This might allow us to better understand why Pamela’s writing is necessarily social. It also might alert us to recognize ways in which language in the eighteenth century serves as a mark/divider of social class. Based on our understanding of literacy, we also might read Pamela more as an emerging self rather than an exploited/victimized young girl. Is it her literacy that leads us to this conclusion, as we watch her make sense of her feelings and thoughts on paper?

Conversations about gender, power, and exploitation in Pamela are valuable, but perhaps they are leading us too far away from the central issue. Maybe, however, Pamela’s literacy is at the forefront because the novel’s main theme is language itself: how it is acquired, shaped, and constructed, and how characters use it to shape their own identities.

Works Cited

Eldred, Janet Carey, and Peter Mortensen. “Reading Literacy Narratives.” College English, vol. 54, no. 5, 1992, pp. 512–539. www.jstor.org/stable/378153.

The Banquet Host and the Benevolent Dictator: Henry Fielding’s Authorial Metaphors in Tom Jones

“The Roses of Heliogabalus” (1888) by Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the first chapter of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding self-consciously sets out the rules for himself as author: he constructs himself as the host of a banquet at a “public Ordinary,” presenting a series of courses for the readers’ consumption. Each volume is a course, and each introductory chapter is a bill of fare, the description of what will be served in this course and (ostensibly) what the reader will be charged.

However, as the novel continues, this metaphor grows more and more problematic. First, though Fielding asserts that he is setting out a clear bill of fare for readers, he doesn’t always effectively address the cost of said course. What does the reader give in exchange for this feast? Perhaps Fielding is assuming the guest has a wealth of reason and imagination to contribute. For example, in the preface to the third volume, he gives the reader some leeway to imagine what occurs during the twelve years that our hero grows up. He expects the reader to contribute his or her “true Sagacity,” for, “As we are sensible that much the greatest Part of our Readers are very eminently possessed of this Quality, we have left them a Space of twelve years to exert it in” (108). Could it perhaps be that the reader is donating his or her time to the author as well? I’m not sure that Fielding sufficiently explains this metaphor.

Additionally, is it really possible or desirable for the reader to know what to expect before entering a novel of this size? Most innkeepers throughout the book don’t publish a bill of fare; rather, they adjust their prices based on their estimation of the wealth of the guest– is Fielding doing the same thing?

Perhaps the most striking/unsettling comparison at the end of the introductory chapter occurs when the author compares himself to Heliogabalus, a Roman emperor renowned for his lavish banquets and cruel sense of humor. Legend recounts that Heliogabalus put gold and jewels in his guests’ boiled peas, suffocated guests with showers of rose petals (see 1888 painting by Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema), and perhaps even caused people to die of over-eating. The notes in the Penguin edition of Tom Jones also indicate that Fielding elsewhere used the pseudonym Heliogabalus for a gluttonous correspondent in his political journal the True Patriot (884). And he does not initially qualify this comparison: “By these Means, we doubt not but our Reader may be rendered desirous to read on for ever, as the great Person, just above-mentioned, is supposed to have made some Persons eat” (37). How does this fit into our ideas about the ethics of reading? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and in a Platonic framework, results from the ungoverned free reign of one’s appetites, which destroys the soul. It seems this isn’t the best way to start a novel when one has to defend the virtue of the novel genre itself.

Fielding in the next introductory chapter tries to reassure us by framing himself as the benevolent dictator/philosopher-king; he states that though he makes all the laws, “I do hereby assure them, that I shall principally regard their [readers’] Ease and Advantage… I am, indeed, set over them for their own Good only, and was created for their Use” (74-75). However, based on the first introduction, I’m not sure I quite trust this narrator to decide what will be to my “Ease and Advantage,” and I’ll be sifting through my peas and watching out for flecks of gold that just might crack my teeth. But perhaps this discernment is Fielding’s goal for his readers all along.

Adultish Children and Childish Adults: Maturity in Bleak House

Last week, Chris posted on “Childhood and Childishness” in Bleak House, noting, “It is filled with adults that act like children (Richard, Ada, Skimpole, Lady Deadlock, Guppy, Chadband, Mr. Turveydrop, Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Smallweed …), and children that act like adults (Charley, Jo, Prince, Judy). Yet, Esther ‘acts her age’, and is nearly the only character that does so.” I would like to probe that idea further, challenging the idea that Esther “acts her age,” and suggest that she, like the other adultish children in the novel, is forced to grow up too soon.

First, what makes adults childish? The main characteristic is dependence: Harold Skimpole, for example, is “a child” because he is utterly dependent on Mr. Jarndyce. Rick is also described as “an Infant” by the Chancery when he desires to select a career in the army; the Court perhaps enjoys having him completely dependent on its “parental” power (387). Mr. Turveydrop likewise enjoys his dependence on Prince and Caddy (who, regrettably, trades one unfortunate parent for another when she marries Prince). In addition to dependence, we also see these childish adults unaware of the world outside themselves, of the effects that their actions have on others. Take Richard’s obsession with Jarndyce, for example, or Harold’s neglect of his children, or Mrs. Jellyby’s inability to see her own children living in squalor while she feeds her ego on charitable projects. I believe Inspector Bucket has it right when he says,

“Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it if they can. Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One” (875).

Rather than condemning certain childish individuals, this problem is endemic enough for Dickens to condemn an entire generation– his generation– of abdicating its responsibilities and forcing its children to take on a premature role.

Esther is the chief casualty of the abandonment of the older generation. Her own mother has never played an active role in her upbringing, and her cold aunt never let her be a little girl, saddling her with the guilt of adult actions. As a result, she skips the stage of the young woman entirely, becoming “Dame Durden” and “little old woman.”

This abdication of young womanhood and the absence of adult guidance in Esther’s life is symbolized by the doll that she cherishes as a child. When Esther buries her doll in the garden, it is more than her acceptance of maturation. The doll represented the adult presence and guidance that Esther never had; she tells it all her secrets, looks to it for the emotional support she would have received from her mother. This is why, when Lady Dedlock and Esther first catch each other’s eye in the church, the doll reappears:

And, very strangely, there was something quickened within me, associated with the lonely days at my godmother’s; yes, away even to the days when I had stood on tiptoe to dress myself at my little glass after dressing my doll.

The doll also reappears in Esther’s life as a symbol of young womanhood. Esther’s sped-up development has forced her to skip the stages of young courtship, to go straight to old-maidhood. While Ada and Rick experience the joy of young love, Esther is the one they come to for advice– despite the fact that she has never had this kind of experience. The description Dickens gives of young Charley’s care for her siblings could just as easily have described the unnatural responsibility Esther is saddled with, mothering both Ada and Rick:  “It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure.” Like the doll, Esther has also buried her youth, taking on an adult role that is unnatural for her stage in life. This is why, when Guppy proposes, Esther again references the doll: the young woman buried within her has begun to awaken. “In short, I was in a flutter for a little while and felt as if an old chord had been more coarsely touched than it ever had been since the days of the dear old doll, long buried in the garden.”

It is only through her illness that Esther is able to reconcile all of her life stages, and to accept the one that is appropriate for her real age. She writes, “At once a child, an elder girl, and the little woman I had been so happy as, I was not only oppressed by cares and difficulties adapted to each station, but by the great perplexity of endlessly trying to reconcile them” (555). With the first glimpse that she gets of herself in the looking-glass after the illness, she is able to come to a greater level of self-knowledge and acceptance, to “begin afresh.” Like the smallpox scars, her lost young womanhood will always be with her. Yet her resilience allows her to reclaim some of what has been lost, when she becomes a mother herself: her children will not have to face the abandonment of the adult generation.

“The Romantic Side of Familiar Things”

At the end of the Preface to Bleak House, Dickens writes a statement that I believe is the key to how we talk about representation and realism in his work: “In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things” (emphasis added). This statement becomes more interesting when taken in the entire context of the preface. For several paragraphs, Dickens has just vehemently defended his narrative choices, arguing that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce is an accurate representation of real cases that have embroiled the Court of Chancery, writing that “everything set forth in these pages concerning the Court of Chancery is substantially true, and within the truth.” The second detail that Dickens defends is the spontaneous combustion of Mr. Krook, which George Lewes had criticized as unrealistic. He writes, “I have no need to observe that I do not willfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject,” and then cites a handful of documented examples, including a woman who died in France and an alcoholic man who died in Columbus, Ohio.

I am curious about why Dickens decided to defend these two elements of his narrative above all else. Was it simply because others criticized these parts of his story as unrealistic? Why not defend other, more fantastic parts of the narrative, like the character of Miss Flite and her garret of caged birds? And why, indeed, worry about “truth” in a work of fiction at all?

But, judging by the way he defends his story, Dickens is indeed concerned that his story be “substantially true, and within the truth”– or, at least, that readers perceive it that way. He writes that he doesn’t willfully mislead us, the readers, while at the same time writing over 800 pages of events that didn’t really happen. We know they didn’t happen, Dickens knows they didn’t really happen, but for those 800 pages, we like to play along in our imaginations and pretend they did. In the end, however, the novel form itself is one big deception. So what kind of representational truth is Dickens hoping to achieve?

One obvious answer, judging by Dickens’ research of deaths similar to Krook’s, is that he wanted to limit his story to the realm of things that possibly could happen, or things that are like events that really did happen. Of course, we will never meet Esther Summerson walking down the street (even if time travel to Victorian England were possible), but as we read her narrative, we buy into the fiction and believe that she really could exist, and that we could meet her, if only we could step through the looking-glass. This is the beauty and magic of fiction, that for a moment allows us to buy into Esther’s character, to believe what she tells us, and to gain a new way of looking at the world.

This brings us back to Dickens’ closing statement: “the romantic side of familiar things.” One of the tactics that his fiction employs is defamiliarization: the act of presenting situations like our own in a completely different context, to break down our pre-formed conclusions and encourage us to rethink our established ideas. In the pages of Bleak House, we may laugh at Harold Skimpole or the ridiculous Mr. Guppy, but then we return to our world to find people who, in certain moments, remind us of Harold Skimpole or Mr. Guppy (or, worse yet, discover that we ourselves share some of their unfortunate characteristics!). Dickens’ reader may come away with a critical suspicion of the real Court of Chancery, or a wariness of the overwhelming allure of an uncertain fortune. Though the novel events are romantic– exaggerated, even– the events in our world are not, which (perhaps) prevents us from seeing them as clearly as Dickens would like us to. Thus, while the truth Dickens tries to present is not exactly representational, it allows us to better interpret and represent our own world within the space of our minds.

Disparities Between Theory and Practice

Why did George Eliot portray peasants as she did in Silas Marner? Well, why not look at her comments in “The Natural History of German Life”? This hermeneutic appears neat and systematized, but at the same time, it highlights the difficulty in constructing a consistent system to interpret an inconsistent human being. In “Reading the Periodical Press: Text and Context,” Lyn Pykett examines the complications that ensue when literary critics attempt to read and digest Victorian periodical writing. The temptation to use nonfiction as “secondary confirming evidence” of an author’s fictional views and ideas is strong– and it happens much more often than scholars would probably like to admit (Pykett 102).  Like Pykett, however, I agree that an author’s nonfiction must play some role in our understanding of that author’s other works; how important that role is, exactly, is harder to pin down.

These periodical writings are useful as cultural artifacts. Yet when determining how much an author’s periodical writing is a product of her culture, we run up against a frustrating chicken-and-egg scenario: does the press shape society, or does society shape the press? It’s almost as frustrating as asking whether novels shape our theoretical framework, or whether our theoretical framework shapes how we read novels. Pykett quotes James Mill, who observes, “Periodical literature depends upon immediate success. It must, therefore, patronise the opinions which are now in vogue, the opinions of those who are now in power” (105). At the same time as the periodical press provided an avenue for those not in power (i.e. Victorian women) to challenge the majority opinion, these marginalized opinions began to push their way to center stage and effect change. The answer to both questions, of course, has to be yes; the influence is mutual.

I believe that one solution is to read these Victorian periodicals as an indication of what topics possessed cultural relevance. Like we read Middlemarch, we should not seek to systematize “Victorian culture” as a monolithic entity; rather, we should seek to enter each article as a different perspective on the same body of current social issues. When applied to individual authors, then, I believe that periodical articles are useful insofar as they highlight what topics were in that author’s mind at the time. Though nonfiction pieces such as Eliot’s “Natural History” or “Notes on Form in Art” should not be used as a systematic proof of an author’s consistent approach to writing, they are useful if we view them as explorations— tentative theories or approaches that the author could challenge or revise at a later time.

While this approach does not provide a satisfying, tidy hermeneutic, I do believe it is more holistic. We’re all human. We make mistakes; we revise our ideas when we encounter new evidence or gain new experiences. It’s certainly unfair to interpret an established literary critic’s theories by a paper he/she wrote in grad school, yet we tend to hold our authors to an unrealistic standard of consistency (and perhaps even possess the illusion of our own eternal consistency). Giving up our need to systematize might just help us remember to accept what we don’t understand, explore mysteries (but admit our limits), and remember to enjoy texts at face value again.

Silas Marner and the Limitations of Experiential Knowledge

The peaceful ending of Silas Marner, and the weaver’s ardent declaration that “I think I shall trusten till I die” seem tidy, neat, redemptive. However, I can’t help but feel/think that something is missing. I feel unsatisfied, and I think that George Eliot has intentionally left some loose ends. We are not meant to feel comfortable with Silas’s ultimate “redemption” because his closing affirmation highlights a textual problem: the uncertainty of experiential knowledge and the limits of experience.

The “Christianity” in this novel (as a few of my colleagues have pointed out) is inherently unsatisfying. If (as Megan says) Eliot’s “Christianity” is an excuse for easy endings and problematic moral platitudes, or (as Mackenzie says) Silas is redeemed not by Christianity at all, but by community– we still run up against the same problem. The knowledge and trust of Marner and the other characters in Eliot’s novel is based entirely on feeling and experience, with no basis in reason or understanding of the faith they blindly affirm.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, Silas’s last affirmation of faith should be troubling because it is faith without basis. At the beginning of the novel, Silas’s past faith has been shattered by his experience (being cast out), so that “Nobody in this world but himself knew that he was the same Silas Marner who had once loved his fellow with tender love, and trusted in an unseen goodness. Even to himself that past experience had become dim” (86). The community that he shared in his former chapel no longer shapes his beliefs; thus, experience of people’s irrational, unjust, and contradictory actions is enough to destroy his moral core.

When Silas becomes a part of the Raveloe church, it is almost as if he has converted to an entirely different religion: “He was quite unable, by means of anything he heard or saw, to identify the Raveloe religion with his old faith; if he could at any time in his previous life… it must have been by the aid of a strong feeling… rather than by a comparison of phrases and ideas” (125). The religion of Raveloe looks so different to Silas because his perception of religion is based on his differing experiences of the people in Raveloe. He has not looked into the religion itself; he instead places his trust in the good faith of the people around him, creating a dangerous, blind “groupthink” effect. Nobody is actually able to say what the community of Raveloe believes, beyond a general morality and the trappings of religion (christening, going to church regularly, etc).

The theft of Silas’s gold perhaps mirrors the first theft of Silas’s faith. He does not lock his doors against Dunstan Cass because “the sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction” (41). Silas is secure in his first community because it is habit. Likewise, as soon as he is “secure” in the habit of community again in Raveloe, he does not concern himself about what– or who– exactly he is trusting. Rather, he has a “feeling”: “There’s good i’ this world– I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel as there’s a good more nor he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness” (145). His trust is not based on revealed knowledge of God, God’s actions, or God’s character– things just “seem to work out” and so (of course) he feels like there must be a god of some sort who wants what’s best in the long run. This affirmation reminds one (uncomfortably so) of Candide’s “best of all possible worlds” philosophy. And this belief is closer to Moral Therapeutic Deism than Christianity.

Who’s to say that Silas’s experience, his “redemption,” will be permanent? Silas’s final affirmation (“Now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die”) has a dangerous condition: it depends on the continuation of his present experience, just like his blind trust did in his previous community. What happens if Eppie dies young of a brutal illness? What happens if the fickle townspeople decide to cast Silas out of community again? Silas even admits, “if I lost you, Eppie[,] I might come to think I was forsaken again, and lose the feeling that God was good to me” (166). The novel ends before this happens, of course, but is Silas’s “redemption” a “happy ending” after all? Can any ending be happy when faith rests on such shaky ground?

Perhaps this question is what Eliot wants us to wrestle with.

Un-idealized Generalizations: George Eliot’s Implicit Criticism of Riehl in “The Natural History of German Life”

Beer_Aus_dem_Gouvernement_Smolensk_1889

Idealized painting of Russian peasant life, 1889. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History,'” Fionnuala Dillane challenges those who would seek to forge a unified theory of writing for Eliot from her comments about realism in “The Natural History of German Life.” She quotes Michael Wolff, stating that Eliot “does not have a ‘theology of aesthetics'” (261); rather, Eliot’s “discomfort with the role of authoritative cultural commentator” and questioning spirit shrunk from spouting certainties in an uncertain world (241). While I believe that Dillane rightly urges critics to avoid proof-texting Eliot, I believe that Eliot’s thesis statement affirms her implicit criticism of Riehl’s generalization and her desire to see a more realistic portrayal of the poor.
Dillane argues that Eliot’s editors at the Westminster assigned her the review of Riehl, and that Eliot passively complied– because, like most journalists today, she probably wanted to keep her job. However, I don’t believe that her editors’ constraints stopped her from passively critiquing Riehl. The oft-quoted passages on writing and realism, I believe, stretch beyond what Dillane calls “an attempt to win over an English audience often hostile to relatively unknown German writers” (248-249). In these passages, she sets up her criteria for a successful representation:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals found on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such a s a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves. (110)
Eliot goes on to list several artistic (not sociological) works, and writes that these stories of individuals do more “towards linking the higher classes with the lower… than hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations” (110). If falsification is, as she goes on to claim, the cardinal sin of representation, then the author who generalizes unfairly is duly condemned.
A couple points here are noteworthy: First, why acclaim the novelist and the artist in a review of a sociological treatise? Second, why condemn generalization so strongly, and then proceed to glowingly summarize an author who does just that? While Eliot praises the author who can engage her readers’ sympathies with individuals through art, she characterizes Riehl’s work as doing just the opposite. She summarizes and highlights his generalizations at length (e.g. “The peasant, in Germany as elsewhere, is a born grumbler” (123) or the Communist peasant living near the city who “has here been corrupted into beastiality by the disturbance of his instincts, while he is as yet incapable of principles,” (125) etc.) Far be it from us to sympathize with such lower, animalistic human beings, who are somehow incapable of morality or justified grievances! Rather than the sympathetic but realistic (and individualized) picture of the poor that Eliot envisions in the realist novel, Riehl’s poor are too far removed from the reader, and too far generalized in a corrupt direction.
If she was indeed bound by her editors’ constraints to write a positive review, Eliot subversively leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions, to tease out the latent dissonance between words and actions. Thus, while “The Natural History of German Life” should not perhaps be the sole proof-text for Eliot’s theories of representation, it should not be completely discarded, either.
Works Cited
Dillane, Fionnuala. “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History’: Marian Evans, ‘the People,’ and the Periodical.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 244-266.
Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” In Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Wagging Tongues, Working Women: Gossip in Cranford and Mary Barton

People will talk.

Elizabeth Gaskell understood firsthand that gossip was a common feature of Victorian society, and she uses it to narrative advantage in both Cranford and Mary Barton. Yet the kinds of gossips she employs are very different: in Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous and even redemptive; in Mary Barton, gossip becomes the twisting and the destruction of the truth. These different kinds of gossips reflect two contrasting communities: the mutually supportive small-town community of idle women, and the hardened, desperate, and uneducated community of the working class.

American WWII propaganda poster. "Tell NOBODY - not even HER" by The National Archives UK - Tell NOBODY - not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

American WWII propaganda poster. “Tell NOBODY – not even HER” by The National Archives UK – Tell NOBODY – not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous, although Gaskell sometimes uses it as an instrument of humor. For example, when the ladies of Cranford are panicking about being robbed, “every time [Miss Pole] went over the story, some fresh trait of villainy was added to their appearance” (Cranford 95). The story becomes so exaggerated that it turns into a fabulous fiction, as entertaining to the storyteller as the listeners. However, her exaggerations have merely comic consequences.

Likewise, Gaskell takes the opportunity to “redeem” gossip when Miss Matty falls on hard times. In the ladies’ show of generosity, there are still several little confidences: “Of course this piece of intelligence [from Miss Pole] could not be communicated before Mrs. Fitz-Adam,” and then Mrs. Forrester approached the narrator “at the entrance to the dining parlour; she drew me in, and when the door was shut, she tried two or three times to begin on some subject,” and then “Mrs. Fitz-Adam… had also her confidence to make” (136-137). These instances of private communication do not have any detrimental effects on Cranford society; they are merely a fact of life, and Gaskell expects us to smile along with the development of her characters’ wagging tongues.

In Mary Barton, however, gossip becomes a malicious force, capable of destroying Mary. The gossip centers around Sally Leadbitter and the girls at the dress shop, and it becomes (figurative) vitriol. At the beginning, Sally’s gossip eggs Mary into the love affair with Henry Carson, which becomes the central factor responsible for Jem’s arrest in the murder case and the central tarnish on Mary’s character. When Mary wants to break up with Carson, Sally twists the truth, encouraging him to keep pursuing her. She “laughed in her sleeve at them both, and wondered how it would all end– whether Mary would gain her point of marriage, with her sly affectation of believing such to be Mr. Carson’s intention in courting her” (135). Because Sally is incapable of innocence, she is unable to recognize it in others; thus, her gossip continually twists the truth to fit her own character and entertainment.

When Carson is murdered, Sally turns the weapon of gossip against Mary, blaming her in front of all the girls: She “made no secret now of Mary’s conduct, more blameable to her fellow-workwomen for its latter changeableness, than for its former giddy flirting. ‘Poor young gentleman,’ said one, as Sally recounted Mary’s last interview with Mr. Carson….’That’s what I call regular jilting,’ said a third. ‘And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!'” Mary’s character assassination is now complete, and the reader is left with the feeling that if such is said to Mary’s face, much worse must be said behind her back.

What makes the difference between these two gossips? Is it that Sally Leadbitter is not constrained by the rules of aristocratic society? Is it merely that more is at stake in the melodramatic and murderous gossip of Mary Barton than in the quotidian everyday happenings of Cranford? Or is the survival-of-the fittest society in Mary Barton to blame? Perhaps, for Gaskell, it is a combination of all these factors. Either way, she seems to accept gossip as a fact of society– people simply will talk about one another– and to draw the line in the content and intent of the gossip itself.

Cranford’s Economy of Friendship

The laissez-faire captitalist industrialization of the Victorian era created a strange, cold new world of railroads and factories, the rise of new money and the fall of old blood. Yet the inhabitants of Cranford launch a conscious subversion of the inhuman “invisible hand”– in staunch British conservatism, the females of Cranford refuse to believe that the free market acts entirely in their interests. Through the ladies’ “little economies,” Elizabeth Gaskell levels a critique against London society’s consumption and frivolity. She instead constructs a society where one can lose one’s fortune without losing one’s dignity, an economy of friends and community that withstands the economic pressures of the larger world.

In the first chapter, “Our Society,” narrator Mary Smith proclaims that the “gentlefolks of Cranford” who had fallen on hard times “concealed their smart under a smiling face. We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic” (4). This elaborate charade is held up by societal consensus; for example, Mrs. Forrester “now sate in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up; though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes” (5). Despite the pointlessness of the charade, the women maintain it, as their “Spartan” resistance to the forces outside their society and control.

As the narrative continues, the outside economic pressure becomes more and more apparent. Captain Brown’s entrance into Cranford society is introduced as his views on money are contrasted with those at Cranford: In Cranford, “economy was always ‘elegant,’ and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious;’ a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied…. Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about being poor– not in a whisper… but in the public street! in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house” (5). His financial situation, as “a half-pay Captain,” is no “disgrace” to him; yet later we find out that “unless Captain Brown has some reason for it, he never speaks about being poor” (17). His situation, as part of the railroads, is hardly enough to support his daughters, yet he bears up bravely even when he is literally crushed by “them nasty cruel railroads” (17-18). Though the market triumphs over Captain Brown in one sense, his spirit lost none of its nobility.

Miss Matty’s lost living allowance demonstrates the triumph of Cranford economy. Despite the confusing, impersonal machinations of the financial market which deprive her of her living, it is the personal economy, the economy of Cranford, that she falls back upon. Though any kind of responsibility for the bank’s collapse certainly does not rest with her, she finds the need to repay whom she can with the little money she has left. The secret gifts of the inhabitants of Cranford offer another example of the insular economy of friendship and community. While the free market economy limits Miss Matty’s options, the economy of friendship sustains her. Her little tea shop sustains a sudden demand– “the whole country round seemed to be out of tea at once”– and rather than competing with her, the owner of the general store gladly sends her his customers. She is sustained not by her adaptations to the market, but by the society of friendship that she has built.

Despite the gentle criticisms that Gaskell offers of the Cranford community, she presents a world untarnished by outside economic forces. Cranford offers a solution to the changing economic world of the Victorian age, a solution that values people over paychecks and friendship over figures.

The (Death) of Charlotte Bronte

"The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored" by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) - Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

“The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored” by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) – Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

For being entitled The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography devotes a large amount of the story to narratives of death: first Mrs. Brontë, then Maria and Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne, Tabby, and, finally, Charlotte herself. In an age of nascent medical science, poor hygiene, and rampant, fatal communicable diseases, death was a fact of life for the Victorians; yet it was not without deep emotional significance. Gaskell’s accounts of the deaths of Branwell, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte all share striking commonalities. What defines these death narratives, and what do they tell us about Victorian culture?

During his life, Branwell becomes “dissipated,” buried in debts, and hopelessly addicted to opium. For years, his struggles with addiction afflict the sisters and their father, as they struggle to keep Branwell out of trouble and away from harming himself or others: “… he [Branwell] would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before morning…The sisters often listened for the report of a pistol in the dead of the night, till watchful eye and hearkening ear grew heavy and dull with the perpetual strain upon their nerves” (Gaskell 227). Yet despite his behavior and his addiction-related mental illness, death reveals the noble character that he still possessed. Gaskell writes, “I have heard from one who attended Branwell in his last illness, that he resolved on standing up to die. He had repeatedly said, that as long as there was life there was strength of will to do what it chose” (Gaskell 289). Gaskell’s narrative reveals a strong belief that one’s true character emerges at the moment of death. In his last moments, Branwell becomes a hero: resolved, courageous, and ready to face whatever might come next.

Emily’s death account shows a similar heroism in the face of fate. For the females of Gaskell’s narrative, the defining theme is independence until the final breath and the avoidance of burdening others: “She made no complaint; she would not endure questioning; she rejected sympathy and help” (Gaskell 290). Outwardly, she denied her illness and refused to see a doctor until it was too late. Though it seems foolish, Emily’s refusal to see a doctor probably did not hasten her death, given the unreliable nature of medical treatment.

Like Emily, the sense of hopelessness pervades Anne’s attitude towards medicine; however, though she knows her death is inevitable, “she was too unselfish to refuse trying means from which, if she herself had little hope of benefit, her friends might hereafter derive a mournful satisfaction” (304). Anne also tries to burden the healthy as little as possible; she was “the patientest, gentlest invalid that could be,” and “dependence and helplessness were ever with her a far sorer trial than hard, racking pain” (307).

Charlotte’s own death is born in the same kind of tragic courage against an inevitable human fate. Her illness is “still borne on in patient trust” even though she takes “stimulants” for her pain and departs in “low wandering delirium” (455). Her reflections on her sisters’ death are telling when compared to her last words. When Emily and Anne die, she warns herself, “These things make one feel, as well as know, that this world is not our abiding-place. We should not knit human ties too close, or clasp human affections too fondly. They must leave us, or we must leave them, one day” (Gaskell 290). Yet on her deathbed, she whispers to her husband, “I am not going to die, am I? He [God] will not separate us, we have been so happy” (455). As it is impossible not to be human, it is impossible for Charlotte not to love.

The tragedy of death in the Victorian culture, and the need for a “good death” narrative to console the living, reveal a society wrestling to define a concrete belief in the afterlife. In Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Deborah Lutz writes that “intermingled with this need to hold onto the memory of the beloved was an anxiety that this matter might finally signify nothing and that death was simply meaningless annihilation. Unfolding this dialectic of doubt and its function in Victorian death culture leads to the evangelical ‘good death’…” (10). Lutz goes on to explain that the life and significance of the Brontes were preserved through relics. Gaskell’s death-surrounded biography led to the late Victorians’ sanctification and enshrinement of the Brontes’ parsonage, along with items touched by the deceased– down to the couch where Emily is believed to have died, and the children’s scribblings on the walls, preserved under glass (52-53). Gaskell’s portrayal of the Brontes’ “good deaths” empowered her eulogizing rhetoric, creating the romanticized image of the Brontes that the living remember today.

Works Cited

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Ed. Angus Easson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 February 2015.

Striking Similarities: Harriet Martineau’s Autobiographical Novel

By Richard Evans (died 1871) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Evans (died 1871) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“…Creating a plot is a task above human faculties…. The only thing to be done, therefore, is to derive the plot from actual life, where the work is achieved for us: and, accordingly, it seems that every perfect plot in fiction is taken bodily from real life.” – Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, p. 189

Reading Deerbrook alongside Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography highlights just how much she followed her own advice, drawing her plots from her everyday life. In fact, each of the main female characters in Deerbrook pick up pieces of Martineau’s own life story and personality. Of course, all characters are inextricably tied to the character and life experiences of their authors, since they are products of the author’s mind. However, Martineau seems to take this idea a step further, fracturing aspects of her identity into the characters of Margaret, Hester, and Maria. These “identity-fragments” persist, even when they go against the character’s own nature, and can only be explained when compared to the Autobiography.

Margaret’s case is the most striking. At the beginning of the story, she is the mature one; her sister Hester is the one given to fear, jealousy, and mood swings. Hope describes her wisdom, stability, “without question, without introspection, without hesitation or consiousness,” unselfish, with “not a morbid tendency…to be discerned” (37). Yet, merely halfway through the story, we get a different picture of Margaret:

“Her mind sank back into what it had been in her childhood…. when, to get rid of a life of contradiction, she had had serious thoughts of cutting her throat, had gone to the kitchen door to get the carving-knife, and had been much disappointed to find the servants at dinner, and the knife-tray out of reach. This spirit, so long ago driven out by the genial influences of family love… now came back to inhabit the purified bosom” (104).

This passage does not seem to fit with what we already know about Margaret’s character. However, it could have easily been lifted from Martineau’s own suicide story in the Autobiography:

“No doubt, there was much vindictiveness in it. I gloated over the thought that I would make somebody care about me… One day I went to the kitchen to get the great carving knife, to cut my throat; but the servants were at dinner, and this put it off for that time… My temper might have been early made a thoroughly good one, by the slightest indulgence shown to my natural affections” (45).

The similarity of the anecdotes is telling, as is the final part of the passage: while Margaret had the “influences of family love,” Martineau apparently did not. One wonders if the adult Margaret’s predilection to suicide after losing Enderby bears any resemblance to the adult Martineau, dealing with the sudden insanity and death of her own love.

Miss Young, too, bears similarities to Martineau’s own personality. Hampered by disability, single, and not wealthy, Miss Young turns to teaching instead of writing, but bits of Martineau’s personality peek through. “What is it to be alone, and to be let alone, as I am?” Miss Young speculates to herself. “It is to be put into a post of observation on others: but the knowledge so gained is anything but a good if it stops at mere knowledge, — if it does not make me feel and act… Without daring to meddle, one may stand clear-sighted, ready to act” (Deerbrook 16). Such a passage could easily have been lifted from How to Observe Morals and Manners, and one could picture Harriet Martineau speaking them on her American journey.

Martineau’s experience also parallels Hester’s struggles with irrational fear, her “sick heart”: “I thought I had got over it,” she tells Hope just before the wedding (67). Yet her change is gradual, not immediate; it is finally the intrusion of poverty that begins to change her character. One wonders if this is what Martineau desired to achieve from her own poverty and trials. However, she is cut short in this achievement. Unlike Hester, she does not have her Hope: “Just when I was growing happy, surmounting my fears and doubts, and enjoying his attachment, the consequences of his long struggle and suspense overtook him. He became suddenly insane; and after months of illness of body and mind, he died” (Autobiography, 119).

Each of the characters in Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook appear to bear an idealized fragment of their author’s identity. Even their names– Hester, Maria, and Margaret– each start with and include letters in common with Harriet Martineau’s name. Margaret is what she might have been in a loving family; Hester is what she imagined herself without the death of the man she loved. Miss Young, perhaps, is closest to the actual Harriet in all but occupation; perhaps this is who she might have been if she possessed a more longsuffering peace with the world.

Literary Lionism and Longing to Be Known

Human beings have a remarkable tendency to attempt to re-make themselves, to form a cohesive narrative of their lives, and to make meaning of the world around them. In “The Authoress’s Tale,” Dallas Liddle accurately observes that Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography “is not in fact the story of Harriet Martineau’s life up to 1855, as scholars have not unreasonably assumed, but rather the story of her life as she wanted to represent it in 1855″ (67).  Martineau’s self-reflection was encouraged when she discovered she was facing a “mortal disease” (tumors and/or a severe heart condition) “which might spare me some considerable space of life, but which might, as likely as not, destroy me at any moment” (35). Though she lived fifteen years after this terminal diagnosis, it provided her enough uncertainty and urgency to begin the attempt to “clean up” her tarnished image, to fashion the legacy she desired to leave behind, and to determine what qualities she wished to be known for.

Harriet Martineau. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, surprisingly, the Autobiography voluntarily reveals Martineau’s vulnerability. She is no longer the character which my colleague Hannah Hannover describes in  “Angry Single Woman Seeks Basic Rights.” Instead, we see her as a nervous child who suffered from anxiety attacks and seriously contemplated suicide. She had “scarcely any respite from the terror,” avoiding contact with people at all costs until her aunt “won my heart and my confidence when I was sixteen” (Martineau, Autobiography, 40). We see her as the woman who fell deeply in love with a man who later went “suddenly insane” and died (Autobiography, 119). We see her grieving for her dead father and brother, persevering through her family’s financial ruin, and struggling with shame over her growing deafness.

After a career of passionate activism, why did she choose to portray this side of herself?

I believe the answer lies in the 1837 essay which she chose to reprint in her Autobiography, “Literary Lionism.” In this essay, she describes the female author thrust to the center of the drawing-room, the spectacle of entertainment, observed, praised, and engaged by all but befriended by none. She also wistfully describes an author on the other side of the publicity spectrum: the cloistered monk, secluded from all society.

Though she concludes that the ideal author strikes a balance between the monk and the lion, “active in some common business of life, not dividing the whole of his life between the study and the drawing-room, and so confining himself to the narrow world of books and readers” (228), her descriptions of the monk reveal a nostalgic longing for the seclusion and anonymity of the cloister.

“A Scribe or Copyist” by Unknown – http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12254. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Scribe_or_Copyist.jpg#mediaviewer/File:A_Scribe_or_Copyist.jpg

The monk has a unique “pleasure of intellectual exercise”: “We may even now witness with the mind’s eye the delight of it painted upon the face under the cowl. One may see the student hastening from the refectory to the cell, drawn thither by the strong desire of solving a problem, of elucidating a fact, of indulging the imagination with heavenly delights… One may see him come down with radiant countenance from the heights of speculation….” (213) Though he may perhaps hope that future generations will find his work useful, and though he may share his devotional insights with fellow monks, the act of composition for Martineau’s monk is completely insulated from the excessive, isolating praise received by the literary lion. Implicitly, he is also protected from vehement blame– which Martineau herself received in abundance.

Yet despite her longing, Martineau was denied this quiet, cloistered life.  And in many ways, the story she tells reveals the alienation of the literary lion. While fashionable society pumps her with questions about “her opinion of this, that, and the other book,” making painful small talk about “black and green tea, or the state of the roads, or the age of the moon,” (217) then roughly discards her with offhand comments (“O, I am so disappointed! I don’t find that she has anything in her” [222]), she really just wants to speak with the children. And for a person who struggled as a child with severe anxiety about social interaction, being the center of attention must have been very painful indeed.

One sees in Martineau’s autobiography the simple human desire to know and be known, to experience genuine friendship without the social frippery. Perhaps the revelations of vulnerability are her attempts to “pop the bubble” of inflated fame and literary lionism, to come back down to earth and just be ordinary. And perhaps it is our place to read graciously.

Works Cited

Liddle, Dallas. “The Authoress’s Tale: The Triumph of Journalism in Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography.” In The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain. 46-72. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography. Ed. Linda H. Peterson. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2007.