Jill (1884) is a fast-pacing coming of age story with subtle social commentary and strong feminist undertones.
The novel centres on the eponymous heroine, Jill, the strong-minded, tomboyish daughter of a well-to-do squire. We follow her, as she narrates her adventurous life, from childhood onwards. From an early age, she has been forced – without much success – to conform to a pattern of femininity she doesn’t care about. Jill likes to dress up and play as a boy, and would much prefer to lead an adventurous life, instead of taking the more travelled path of becoming a settled housewife.
When her mother dies, her life turns for the worse: Jill’s father soon remarries, and the girl is submitted to a strict regime by her stepmother. Our heroine finds herself, much to her discomfort and anger, confined at home, almost never allowed to come out, and kept under the surveillance of a series of governesses.
Longing for a life of freedom and adventure, Jill throws off her wealthy lifestyle and manages to flee from home, to make her way in London. While earning her own living by working part-time as a governess, our narrator attends to classes, so as to learn the skills she needs to find a better job.
By a series of happy coincidences, she ends up as a travelling-maid of a woman she had met before on a holiday, when they were both children. Kitty Merryn has grown up to be a beautiful, ambitious woman, but she doesn’t recognise Jill, now dressed up as a maid. The two will travel together and go through a series of adventures.
Having read that this was a Victorian lesbian novel, I was hoping for a much more explicit story about unrequited love – which, definitely, it is not. The growing feeling Jill harbours for Kitty is very subtly played out, and remains constantly on a grey zone between admiration, curiosity, jealousy, and, possibly, love. The seemingly insurmountable class divide between the two women is much more explicitly explored than Jill’s conflicting feelings for her employer. Much of the subtlety here is due to our heroine’s own character: she is practical and unsentimental, and a broken heart would never bend her down.
Despite the fact that the writing style can be somewhat clunky, the highlight of the book, for me, was Jill’s voice as a narrator: she is fresh, dryly humorous, at time even cynical. Jill infuses the book with her strong personality: she is not a typically virtuous Victorian heroine, but a very ambiguous one, bordering on selfishness, and capable to do almost anything to get what she wants.
In spite of her shortcomings (or maybe precisely because of them), we cannot help but fall for Jill, and engage with her struggle for freedom and autonomy, her persistent refusal to depend on men, and her straightforward dismissal of any restraints based on class and convention.
This look of sadness would last perhaps for a minute, and then invariably be succeeded by one that was scornful, hard, and impenetrable. – Amy Dillwyn, Jill
If she had tastes and inclinations to which it objected, she did not, on that account, sacrifice them, if it was possible that they could be indulged in secret. – Amy Dillwyn, Jill