Friends, the nineteenth century is a (literary) gift that just keeps on giving. A few days ago, I finished Margaret Oliphant’s excellent novel Hester (1883) and I’ve fallen in love all over again. Not that I’d ever fallen out of love; the nineteenth century is so rich, keeps surprising me, keeps reeling me further in. Knowing how much Anthony Trollope, George Gissing, and George Meredith I have to look forward to–not to mention a few samples of Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot I’m holding in reserve–has cast a glow of delicious anticipation over my foreseeable reading future.
And the future just got both brighter and longer. Margaret Oliphant wrote over 90 novels!!! What a ridiculous blessing this is. Let us all take a moment to quietly contemplate how grateful we are for good writers undistracted by the internet, as well as the visionaries behind the Oxford World’s Classics and the Penguin Classics.
Now, Hester. It could, and maybe should, have been called Hester and Catherine, for it’s really the story of two women who should adore each other from the get-go, but only begin to approach doing so near the end of Catherine’s life. The setting: a provincial town in England. The introductory emergency: John Vernon, head of a local bank, realizes he’s on the verge of ruining said bank–which means ruining more than half the people in Redborough–and so absconds to the Continent. He fails to man up, utterly.
As a Vernon, part of a family known and respected in the county for longer than anyone can remember, he is duty-bound, honour-bound, blood-bound to stay and try to right the massive wrongs he’s perpetrated; he does not. Since much of the Vernon banking establishment draws, and always has drawn, its stability and prosperity from the strength of the family reputation, this promises catastrophe. But, as Yoda might have ponderously pronounced, there is another…
That other is John’s cousin, Catherine. Having grown up in the bank under her extremely competent father’s tutelage, she’s made for increasing the bank’s power, success, and prestige–except that cousin John would never allow her to be involved, always dismissing her clear (to everyone but him) intelligence merely because she’s a “girl”–a girl of 30 or so when the novel begins. But when he buggers off with his tail between his legs, there is no one else to step in and save the day. So Catherine steps in and not only saves the day, but also single-handedly turns Vernon’s into the bank everyone always thought it was: stable, local, and too familiar to fail.
That’s all really prologue; the story really begins many years later when the ignominious John Vernon dies (never having made reparations of any sort) and his widow and 14-year-old daughter return. They are poor and really have no choice but to fall upon Catherine’s ample charity. Mrs. John is sweet, stupid, and shallow but not selfishly so; young Hester is bright-eyed, energetic, clever, bored, and ready to take on the world. She’s like Catherine in miniature. And yet, not only do they fail to either understand or take to one another as they obviously should, they spend the next five years in active combat.
Catherine and Hester are both too stubborn, too convinced of the rightness, the inviolability of their own mental and social positions to pause for one moment and think how they might help and be good for one another. Oliphant’s story is about two people whose individual stubbornness and prejudices ruin what ought to be a beautiful relationship, but that’s only part of it. The larger story is about what it means to be an exceptional woman in nineteenth-century England; what it means to be an exceptional woman so accustomed to proving and defending herself on the one hand, and to being fawned over for the same extraordinary difference on the other, that free and easy relationships with other women become impossible.
You see, when Hester arrives, Catherine is so accustomed to being deferred to, especially by her charitable dependents, that she simply cannot bear any expression of Hester’s proud spirit. So, instead of cultivating Hester’s energy and inborn (classically Vernon family) talents, Catherine tries to crush her. Hester arrives in Redborough at 14 “with the pride of life and youth and conscious energy in every vein,” but by the time she’s 19, she’s succumbing to the bitterness, the petty vindictiveness, the desperate urge to escape coupled with the kind of lassitude that makes escape impossible, that afflicts all the long-term residents of the so-called Vernonry (where Catherine houses most of her poor relations).
Hester is by no means corrupt; but her soul has been squeezed and mocked and poked at and left dangerously unwatered for a long time; she hasn’t become either what she could have been or what she imagined she would be. She has nothing to look forward to, be allowed neither to go earn her own bread (and self-respect) as a governess, nor to become a dynamic part of the Vernon dynasty.
Things begin to become terribly exciting, however, when Catherine’s heir apparent, her devoted nephew and model of steady industry, Edward Vernon, begins covertly wooing Hester. As with Catherine, Hester has been locked in a fierce emotional battle with Edward since they met but it was (or, at least, seemed) more complicated–an irresistible admixture of attraction and repulsion. Eventually, they come together and words are spoken that cannot be recalled; there are, perhaps, embraces.
But this is not good news, for while Edward’s promise of escape followed by great adventures appeal to Hester’s still large, if uncultivated, soul, he won’t tell her what he means by any of it. Indeed, in exchanges anticipating Rhoda and Evarard’s in Gissing’s The Odd Women, Edward betrays the terrible fact that while it’s Hester’s unique spirit and keen mind that attract him, he assumes she will put those tidily away in a drawer somewhere now that she’s become his.
And the news gets worse, for what he intends is that they will run away together in the middle of the night with all the money he’s made through wild speculation using all of the Vernon bank’s assets without permission or one ounce of self-control! Having chafed against what he felt was Catherine’s iron grip on his life and mind (really devoted maternal care for the young man, care she never had the chance to bestow on children of her own), Edward breaks free with a kind of desperate madness bound to leave behind many casualties.
This crisis is what leads, finally, to an understanding between Catherine and Hester. Both become better for it. But still, this is not a story of individuals, even when it is: for the real tragedy here is not that Edward throws his aunt’s love and patronage in her face (she’s made him the head of the bank, for gawd’s sake, and he had no prospects before she brought him on board). The real tragedy is that the ruts women are forced into in the world Oliphant observed are, by their nature, bound only both to get deeper and to be repeated ad infinitum.
Catherine was not encouraged to develop her talents because of her gender, and she, because she needs to work so hard to maintain her position, is capable of seeing someone just like her only as a threat, instead of the comrade and apprentice she should be. At the same time, everyone is constantly protecting Hester from the knowledge of what her father did, thinking it could only mortify her, that it could not help her–even though everyone also acknowledges she is not like other girls. This secret almost leads Hester into participating in the very same crime when she contemplates running away with Edward!
This is not a hopeful novel, in spite of Hester and Catherine’s eventual coming together. Yes, the bank eventually recovers, and yes, Hester doesn’t die of a broken heart when she realizes Edward’s perfidy (and what we would now call, I think, serious gambling addiction). It’s not hopeful because in spite of the proof of Catherine’s (Hester’s, too, in the second crisis) capabilities, there is never any question of bringing Hester into the family business. The novel concludes bitterly and not without, I think, fatigue at the predictability of it all:
And as for Hester, all that can be said for her is that there are two men whom she may choose between, and marry either if she please–good men both, who will never wring her heart…What can a young woman desire more than to have such a possibility of choice?
Well, perhaps there’s not a total lack of hope here; that final question is bitterly ironic, no question, but maybe it’s also an honest invitation to the world to think seriously about how women’s identities and lives were circumscribed so forcefully into the domestic.
One novel by Oliphant has given me a whole world of reading to do, which is excellent. I’m also grateful to have discovered another writer (alongside Eliot and Gissing) willing to look directly at the constraints of gender during the period within the parameters of a really compelling novel. It’s not, of course, that this is the only issue that interests me, but like the English Renaissance, it looks from here like a lot was happening gender-wise then, which makes for exciting good reading. Onward!