Specially for Dorothy.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of this, except that it might be vaguely Jane Austen alike. Of course, no one is really like Austen, but I think Martineau has her own virtues.
The story of the two sisters who arrive in the village of Deerbrook and interrupt its quotidian routines, friendships and squabbles starts easily enough. Hester is the beauty, quickly assumed to be the focus of attention but of a jealous disposition; Margaret, the more intelligent and amiable sister, is overshadowed by the more obvious attractions of her sister, but yet preferred by both the village’s eligible bachelors. And then the plot takes unexpected and slightly darker turns. In the end, good is rewarded and evil punished but along the way there is certainly more unpleasantness and suffering than I expected.
I was most surprised by the character of Mrs Rowland, who starts off as a fairly standard unpleasant neighbour, but is swiftly revealed to be much more unpleasant and manipulative. She is particularly opposed to Margaret and Hester, since she is already at odds with their relatives, the Hopes. When Mrs Rowland’s brother, Philip Enderby, begans to display an interest in Margaret, she spreads a rumour that he is engaged elsewhere, so that Philip is forced to tackle her on the point:
“I desire to know what you mean by telling everybody that I am engaged to Miss Mary Bruce.”
“I said so, because it is true.”
The cool assurance with which she said this was too much for Enderby’s gravity. He burst out a laughing.
“If not precisely true when I said it, it was sure to be so soon; which is the same thing. I mean that it shall be true. I have set my heart upon your marrying, and upon your marrying Mary Bruce. I know she would like it and -”
“Stop there! Not another word about Miss Bruce! I will not have you take liberties with her name to me; and this is not the first time I have told you so. It is not true that she would like it… And now for the plain fact. I am engaged elsewhere.”
“No; you are not.”
“Yes; I am.”
“You will marry no one but Mary Bruce at last, you will see, whatever you may think now.”
Mrs Rowland’s audacity is quite breathtaking, and the direct maliciousness of her actions is something you don’t often find. She is an extreme version of Mansfield Park‘s Mrs Norris. The effect of her deliberate malevolence with respect to the livelihood, personal safety and future happiness of various characters is quite serious.
Martineau also paints a mixed picture of marriage. One of the marriages is mostly forced into being because the groom, although he loves someone else, is led to believe that he has raised certain expectations that it would only be honourable to fulfil. Thus he embarks on married life from a sense of duty, expecting his daily life to be torturous. A warm and genuine love is his reward for this self-sacrifice, but it entails some struggles along the way.
I seem to be concentrating on the darker elements, when there is humour too, but really it was the borderline tragic (and therefore more realistic) parts of the story that grabbed my attention. After a slow start, I was gripped by the reversals of fortune in the middle of the book; and that carried me through the rather anti-climactic and conventional ending.