The Morgesons (1862) is that rare thing: a 19th-century novel with a sceptical, areligious, and probably amoral heroine. It reads like a modernist fiction avant la lettre: it combines elements of a Bildungsroman, Gothic romance, New England regionalist fiction, multi-generational family sagas, conventional domestic narratives, satire or comedy of manners – and problematizes those categories by placing them in a dialogue, rubbing one against the other to produce a spark.
The novel traces the sentimental education of a middle-class American woman, our narrator Cassandra Morgeson, whom we follow from her childhood, through her youth, and into her early adulthood. Born in Surrey, a small, isolated New England town, from an early age our restless Cassandra yearns to escape the boredom of domestic life. At the age of thirteen, she has her first opportunity to venture outside the confines of her town, when her parents send her to live with her overly religious grandfather in Barmouth, so that she can advance her studies.
Once there, however, our protagonist’s life becomes even more limited than before: she is now confined to going from home to school or church, and back, in a never-ending repetition. To make matters worse, Cassandra feels like a square peg in round hole among her classmates. Even at a young age, she fiercely resists conformity, and in Barmouth she will learn for the first time the price one pays for one’s own self-possession.
When Cassandra turns eighteen, she has once more the opportunity to leave her family home: she is invited to stay with her cousin Charles and his wife in Rosville, to attend a finishing school and have a glimpse of city life. Once there, our protagonist will experience her first sexual awakening, and will find herself caught up in an adulterous love affair. She will also learn about hubris and retribution, and a tragic accident will bring her back home in Surrey.
She will then travel again, this time to the wealthy city of Belem, hometown of some of the New England nobility, where she stays in the family house of one of her friends, Ben Somers. There, she will learn about class prejudices and social injustice, and will be tempted into hubris again. However, upon her mother’s death, shortly thereafter, our protagonist will be confronted with the difficult choice between independence and domesticity. As the eldest daughter, it is her duty to take on the role of managing the household.
From the first scene in the book, we know that Cassandra will not be our usual nineteenth-century heroine: there she is, climbing up a chest of drawers, so that she can read a book on the top. Her aunt says the child is possessed, but we soon learn that it is more accurate to say that Cassandra is self-possessed – and, in that, she is quite unlike our usual 19th– century girl. She is sceptical, areligious, and probably amoral. Moreover, she is self-confident and sensual, self-aware and sharp, and has a deep attraction to the sea, to wild animals, and to unruly men. Cassandra has a strong disregard for sexual prudery, convention or any form of decorum, and refuses to conflate femininity with weakness or to idealize domesticity. Our heroine is a woman of indomitable spirit, set on a quest for self-definition and personal fulfilment, determined to resist being defined by others, as well as to resist social expectations about her role as a woman. “Cassandra, that man is a devil“, a friend warns her. “I like devils“, she responds.
One of the highlights of the book is the subtle way you use symbols to convey additional layers of meaning: in a story centred on the search for identity, our protagonist is constantly confronted with reflections and mirrors. The writing style itself seems to mirror the book’s question, repeated by Cassandra throughout the novel, whether one person can truly know another: elliptical, full of half-explained scenes and non-sequiturs, the writing style seems to be playing with shadows. There is a pervasive disconnection between the characters, and they are often struggling with giving voice to their own desires: and we feel that we are as confused as they are about their motives.
Each character is depicted more as a disjointed collection of impressions and fragments than as a coherent whole. We get to know the characters in the same way they get to know each other: fragment by fragment, through interpolated moments of illumination and blindness, as a collection of features that, when looked more closely, are hard to decipher.
Moreover, connected with the theme of identity, we also have the theme of double: Cassandra feels that she has two irreconcilable identities; she feels that there is an abyss between her inner self and her external appearance, between what she needs and what is expected of her; she finds, in her cousin Charles, her kindred spirit, and in her sister Veronica, her double.
Charles is a Rochester-like character: a rich businessman, married to a woman he doesn’t love; “a savage, living by his instincts“, passionate about wild, untameable horses. Cassandra has the impression that there is “a devil looking out of his eyes”, and she feels that “an intangible, silent, magnetic feeling existed between us, changing and developing according to its own mysterious law, remaining intact in spite of the contests between us, of resistance and defiance“. We are never sure who is seducing whom here, but we feel that Charles will be a victim of his own wild nature, which is symbolized both by a stallion he cannot control and by a woman who refuses to be owned.
Veronica, on the other hand, is Cassie’s complementary opposite: otherworldly, prophetic, elusive, and fragile, Verry is a sphinx, a sibyl, the angel in the house, and the madwoman in the attic. We never know which of the sisters might be possessed by the devil: perhaps none; perhaps both, each in their own way of refusing to conform. They are both rich, complex, contradictory female characters.
You play with the idea of possession throughout the book. As an impetuous, strong-willed woman, Cassandra is many times defined as “possessed”, and this is frequently associated with the fact that she refuses “to be possessed by others”, as she opposes and tries to resist social conventions. Our protagonist is deemed “possessed” for actions that, if performed by a man, would not be disapproved nor viewed as extravagant or unnatural – like climbing a chest of drawers, for example. But, because she is a woman, those same actions are considered either sinful or mad, as if caused by a force of evil – and, here, the idea of “demonic possession” also comes into mind. Cassie refuses to submit to religious doctrine, she resists being tamed, she dreads to become confined at home and to be made completely dependent on men. In an order built upon male control over and ownership of women, Cassandra’s self-possession is, in itself, profoundly disruptive. Our Cassie is a major threat and a real treat: this woman is, indeed, possessed.
However, this is not a novel about a woman who, after great struggle, manages to achieve independence in the end. Quite on the contrary, here we have the story of how even a strong-willed woman is tempted into capitulation. Yours is a very ambivalent take on the subject – and this is actually the main strength of the book. We follow our protagonist through a contradictory process: while Cassandra gains more awareness about her needs and her desires, as she grows up, she also experiences increasing threats to her self-possession; the more she wants to escape domesticity, the more she is forced into it.
The protagonist’s coming-of-age is not presented here as a linear movement toward increasing development and autonomy, but rather as a kind of spiraling where maturation and capitulation are intertwined and in dialogic tension. Cassandra evolves not by learning to adapt herself, but rather by learning to what extent this adaptation requires the acceptance of a self-imposed limit. She develops by learning the constraints of her gender and trying to resist them: in Surrey, she learns to reject domesticity; in Barmouth, to reject puritanism; in Rosville, to reject female propriety and decorum; and, in Belem, she learns to eschew class and social status.
This is also not a novel about a woman who learns to find her place in life through marriage and domesticity: even Cassandra’s capitulation is ambiguous here. She has, in a sense, been defeated and bowed before duty. However, we end by knowing that she is narrating her story from her desk: she is the one writing it. In the page, she is able to recover her self-possession. You seem to be mocking our expectations for either a happy or a sad ending, and present us with both, intertwined.
In fact, even your writing style plays at breaking our expectations, from one sentence to the next. The dialogues often seem incomplete and full of blanks, and frequently contain a short moment of psychological depth toppled off by a banal, superficial denouement. Many paragraphs mix different tones and mood, as if they were crossed through by a hidden undercurrent, refusing to come to a cohesion and thereby disrupting our expectations. Similarly, we also have a juxtaposition of gothic and realistic elements which seem to deflate one another, as if you were parodying both.
This constant interplay and tension between the gothic and the realistic modes also invests the ordinary with the strange, disrupting our expectations for both and placing them in a kind of dialogue. There is a strong interplay with the uncanny: things usually repressed often irrupt in a scene, mentioned in an oblique way, and then drown again into obscurity. In other scenes, the ordinary and familiar are made to seem strange, or rotten at the core.
The female characters, in particular, often voice the uncanny, either by violating rules of propriety and politeness (which are especially binding to women), or by revealing a deep gap between what they want and what they are allowed to want. On a whole, the writing style feels as if you were not concerned with describing events nor objects, but rather the effect they produce on the characters. The symbolic and the realistic feel here as intertwined layers.
One of the main symbols you use to express Cassandra’s quest for freedom is the sea:
“The wide, shimmering plain of sea – its aerial blue, stretching beyond the limits of my vision in one direction, upbearing transverse, cloud-like islands in another, varied and shadowed by shore and sky – mingled its essence with mine. (…) I stopped on the verge of the tide-mark; the sea was seeking me and I must wait. It gave tongue as its lips touched my feet, roaring in the caves, falling on the level beaches with a mad, boundless joy! “Have then at life!” my senses cried. “We will possess its longing silence, rifle its waiting beauty. We will rise up in its light and warmth, and cry, ‘Come, for we wait.’ Its roar, its beauty, its madness – we will have – all.“
Shortly after this scene, where Cassandra seems to have found her true, limitless spirit, after communing with the sea and being almost enclosed by waves, she goes back home and meets her aunt, who is worried that Cassie might not be going to assume the household after her mother’s death:
“’Oh, Cassandra, can you give up yourself?
‘I must, I suppose. Confound the spray; it is flying against the windows'”
The sea, calling from outside, knocking on the windows, threatening to come inside the house and to break its barriers, is a reminder of everything Cassie is about to renounce. The windows, here, seem to be a blurry border between domesticity and freedom: they separate Cassandra from the sea, yet they also let her see through them and be splashed by the spray – which, flying against the glass, seems to mirror her heart, battling against its entrapment, and longing to break out.
“I know now there should have been no higher beatitude than to live in the presence of an unselfish, unasking, vital love.” ―
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 1997, 304 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1862
- My rating: 5 stars
- I read this book for The Classics Club, A Century of Books & Back to the Classics.