Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In which I ramble my way across a book

It's a major pet peeve of mine when Jane Austen gets referred to as a "Victorian" novelist. It's one of those line-in-the-sand things, like referring to Obama as a "socialist": either you know what those words mean or you don't. (Oooh, edgy!)

Jane (reporting from this rad mug) and I are unimpressed by poor periodization skills

But, y'know, I can sort of understand the inclination. Austen is not only super-famous, she sort of stands apart, time-wise. It's been ages since I've taken an English Lit class, so maybe I'm off base, but who else from the early nineteenth century do we still really read, eh? Scott, maybe. Burney's earlier and only nerds know about her. Radcliffe if you're a suicidal nerd. There are the Romantic poets, but they're poets. Mary Shelley gets treated as a genre author. For all the Austen family's novel-reading it doesn't seem like there are a whole lot of survivals from the period.

Well, here's a book to help round out that picture: Marriage, by Susan Edmonstone Ferrier, published in 1818. I downloaded this for freeeee through Manybooks.com. This is the Project Gutenberg edition, which obviously gets the job done but is slightly annoying in various ways. There's a fairly extensive Victorian introduction that has all kinds of background about Ferrier and the novel, but the lack of formatting obliterates the footnotes and block quotes and makes it sort of a headache. So I skipped it, although probably I would enjoy it if I made an effort. (Bah, effort.)

This is clearly a didactic novel, meant to illustrate good and bad approaches to girls' education and how these lead to success or misery in marriage. At the center are twin baby girls and their three mother-figures. Their birth mother, Lady Juliana, is a spoiled, air-headed London beauty who elopes with her Scottish suitor in the name of love; she keeps one of the twin girls with her when she returns to London from Scotland. The other twin girl is adopted by a saintly aunt by marriage (mother figure #2), Alicia Douglas, who is also English but thoroughly intelligent and virtuous. The third potential mother figure is Aunt Jacky, a spinster aunt who represents the other end of the bad mothering spectrum, being completely small-minded and ultimately almost as empty-headed as the birth mother despite being more useful around the house. Ferrier is pretty scathing about Miss Jacky and her brand of "sensible woman":
Miss Jacky, the senior of the trio, was what is reckoned a very sensible woman--which generally means, a very disagreeable, obstinate, illiberal director of all men, women and children--a sort of superintendent of all actions, time, and place--with unquestioned authority to arraign judge, and condemn upon the statutes of her own supposed sense... At home her supremacy in all matters of sense was perfectly established; and thence the infection, like other superstitions, had spread over the whole neighbourhood. As sensible woman she regulated the family, which she took care to let everybody see; she was conductor of her nieces' education, which she took care to let everybody hear; she was a sort of postmistress general--a detector of all abuses and impositions; and deemed it her prerogative to be consulted about all the useful and useless things which everybody else could have done as well. She was liberal of her advice to the poor, always enforcing on them the iniquity of idleness, but doing nothing for them in the way of employment--strict economy being one of the many points in which she was particularly sensible. The consequence was, while she was lecturing half the poor women in the parish for their idleness, the bread was kept out of their mouths by the incessant carding of wool and knitting of stockings, and spinning, and reeling, and winding, and pirning, that went on amongst the ladies themselves. And, by-the-bye, Miss Jacky is not the only sensible woman who thinks she is acting a meritorious part when she converts what ought to be the portion of the poor into the employment of the affluent.
I thought that economic point was rather interesting. The contrast is that Alicia pays the boys and girls of her neighborhood to take care of her garden rather than doing it herself.

Ferrier is an entertaining writer, and so even though most of her characters represent some precisely mapped combination of [good/bad] nature and [good/bad] nurture, they're still interesting personalities. Plus it's just fascinating to see what she saw as plausible "types" of her day. For instance, saintly aunt Alicia, we are told, was a poor cousin raised in a well-bred family, and when she and her titled cousin fell in love -- you know the fall out here, right? The two are separated, forbidden to marry, etc etc. But! Alicia, though heart-broken, accepts that this is totally reasonable, that her high-born aunt has every right to forbid her son to marry a poor cousin, and steels herself to get over him. When he's super-persistent, she marries the nicest of her suitors and goes to live with him in Scotland, and is very happy with this. Contrast this with her sister-in-law Lady Juliana, and you get the feeling that Ferrier has some doubts about this whole "love match" business.

Aside from historical perspectives on education and marriage, Marriage also paints a delightfully nineteenth century picture of Scotland. The contrast between the Scottish highlands and London's highlife (eh, eh? see what I did there?) provides a geographical contrast as background to the moral/intellectual contrasts in the book. Plus it offers lots of colorful scenery and characters.
"It's impossible the bagpipe could frighten anybody," said Miss Jacky, in a high key; "nobody with common sense could be frightened at a bagpipe."
On descending to the dining-parlour he found his father seated at the window, carefully perusing a pamphlet written to illustrate the principle, Let nothing be lost, and containing many sage and erudite directions for the composition and dimensions of that ornament to a gentleman's farmyard, and a cottager's front door, ycleped, in the language of the country a midden--with the signification of which we would not, for the world, shock the more refined feelings of our southern readers.
If you like historical fashions, this book is worth looking at: there are plenty of intriguingly detailed descriptions of the Scottish women's practical clothing as compared to Lady Juliana's finery. For instance, one highland lady arrives at the house with her skirt "carefully drawn through the pocket-holes" and wearing "a faded red cloth jacket, which bore evident marks of having been severed from its native skirts, [and] now acted in the capacity of a spencer."

In re education, "true religion" seems to be the magic bullet. Here is Alicia summing up the take-home lesson:
"Oh, what an awful responsibility do those parents incur," she would mentally exclaim, "who thus neglect or corrupt the noble deposit of an immortal soul! And who, alas! can tell where the mischief may end? This unfortunate will herself become a mother; yet wholly ignorant of the duties, incapable of the self-denial of that sacred office, she will bring into the world creatures to whom she can only transmit her errors and her weaknesses!"
I'm only halfway through; the twin raised by Alicia has just arrived in London to meet her sister and her mother, and that's going about as well as you could expect. I'm considering not finishing, just because I'm a little frustrated with how long I've been reading this already. It's not the book's fault; I no longer have a daily commute which means I have to figure out some other way to get reading time into my day. So I rate this: Worthwhile, if you like old books.

(There's no reason for that to be there, but I think you'll agree, it had to go somewhere.)



    2. Ooh, I love when period books are all "I don't know about this love match business" because DIFFERENT SOCIAL MORES and maybe our time isn't the Right About All Things time, etc etc. Damned Enlightenment.

    I had an interesting talk with that women's book group I went to about Austen and her social conservativism (it's a word now), and how people like to paint her as a feminist nowadays, but she basically wasn't. I mean, is Harriet in Emma told she can do anything? Um, no, she will marry the farmer man, and then Emma will stop visiting her, because ew.

  2. I did this unit at Uni about like the rise of the novel and it involved reading novels written in the eighteenth century, mainly, and they were SO awful that I somehow convinced myself that Austen was some kind of blip on the literary horizon and so I shouldn't read anything written around/before her time. And so I don't! This doesn't really have anything to do with anything, other than, I guess, that I wouldn't read this book of which you speak because it was written waaay too early for me!

  3. I made you this: