These women, who step out of their sphere,

Dear Margaret,

Hester (1883) seems to be a deceptive title: we may be under the impression that what we have in our hands is the coming of age story of a woman of marriageable age. However, lurking in the in-between lines of this book, we have an entirely different story: that of an old spinster’s rise, heartbreak, and downfall. When these two storylines finally clash, we cannot help but feel that, perhaps, there was only one and single story after all – but one seen from its opposing edges. The coming of age aspect, much like the title Hester itself, may well have been only a disguise for something else entirely.

We are given a retrospective glance at the development of Vernon’s bank, a family company that has had a reputation for stability for many generations, in the small town of Redborough. One of the family members, Catherine Vernon, a spinster in her early thirties who, despite being one of the main partners in the bank, has decided to keep away from it, once her cousin, John Vernon, started acting as the head of the company. She had been in love with him, but, opposing the family expectations, John decided to marry another woman. Mrs. John Vernon was a beautiful, conventional girl from a county family.

At the point we meet the family, John Vernon’s reckless meddling with speculation has nearly destroyed the bank. He deserts his place and runs away to avoid having to deal with the crisis. As rumours start do spread that there will be “a run on the bank”, the head clerk, Mr. Rule, decides to look for John Vernon, but finds only his wife, Mrs. John, at home. Mr. Rule soon realizes that she is helpless and completely ignorant of the danger the company is in. Hopeless, he then looks for Catherine Vernon, who, against all expectations, grasps what is at stake and leaps into action, putting her fortune into the bank’s disposal, and ultimately saving the company.

Catherine assumes the place left behind by John, and his wife leaves England to meet him in France, where they live in exile. For the next thirty years, Catherine runs the bank, making it even more prosperous than before. She becomes the most important person in town, and maintains lodgings for her relatives in a family property, the Heronry, acting as their benefactress. She takes under her wing two nephews, Harry and Edward, to train them to succeed her in business. Harry is a loyal and trustworthy young man, but Catherine ends up developing a preference for Edward, who becomes a sort of foster son for her.

Many years after the crash that almost destroyed the bank, John Vernon dies, and Catherine invites his widow and his fourteen-year-old daughter Hester to move into the Heronry. Despite their similar personalities, Hester and Catherine misinterpret each other from their first meeting, andtheir relationship is marked by conflict and mutual dislike.

Hester soon becomes disillusioned about the life in the Heronry, where most of the inhabitants, although living on Catherine’s charity, are ungrateful, slanderous, resentful, and even spiteful toward their hostess. All Hester can dream of is to free herself from this environment (and from Catherine) by taking a teaching position. Her relatives, however, forbid her from doing so: it would be something below her class, which would not only sully her chances to make a good marriage, but would also lower her family in the eyes of society. Hester’s only option is to keep at her mother’s side until marriage, passively waiting for someone to propose to her. And it is precisely this that our energic protagonist cannot tolerate.

When a charming broker on the stock exchange enters the scene, courting Hester and tempting Edward with promises of a fortune made through speculation, the story takes an unexpected turn, where our heroine will be faced with a hard choice between freedom and duty.

The first thing that stood out for me was the novel’s ironic perspective on love. Differently from a traditional marriage plot, we never come to a really romantic conclusion as the book ends. In fact, not only our heroine’s story remains open, but she also seems rather stuck more or less where she started from: by the end, Hester has not achieved any form of work or economic independence, and all that she is left with is a choice between two potential suitors – neither of whom particularly remarkable. She has no love, no career, and no money – and yet, the ending congratulates her for having that which most women of the time only dreamt of: a choice between… two husbands. “What can a young woman desire more than to have such a possibility of choice?

By mocking the convention of marrying the protagonist off at the end of a female narrative, and by presenting the heroine with a choice between suitors, your novel ironically highlights Hester’s lack of choice: all that she can do with her life is to get married. It is made clear to us that she has no real choice after all, and that this choice – marriage – is not even the most important one for a woman of her intellect and potential. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the characters more concerned with romantic love, in the novel, were not the women, but the men. Furthermore, the book does a good job at portraying the way the idea of romantic love was used as a device for controlling women or denying them an equal position in a relationship.

The novel also sheds light into women’s roles in British 19th-century society, while, at the same time, subtly trying to subvert those roles. You draw a sharp contrast between two types of women, based on their capacity to fit the roles imposed on them: we have Hester’s mother, Mrs. John Vernon, a gentle, passive, feminine woman who takes pride in her ignorance about the business world; and we have Catherine Vernon, a spinster who dared to assume a leading role in the public sphere and is very competent in her line of business.

Interestingly, both types of women are criticized by the male characters in the novel: Mr. Rule seems to hint that Mrs. John Vernon’s passivity and ignorance enabled her husband’s irresponsibility; as for Catherine, not only John Vernon claims that she has no business sense (“What should she think?  What should she know?  Of course she leaves all that to me. (…) How can a girl understand banking business?”), but also Edward defines her power over him as an affront to his manhood, and sees himself as “a slave to an old woman!,” tied to her “apron-strings,” suggesting that such power is not a woman’s “natural place”.

Hester, while placed between those two types of women, has no real opportunity to choose one of them. She objects to Edward’s opinion on women in business, and constantly asks him to explain his dealings to her (“I am a woman, but I am not a fool.  I can understand most things”). However, she is rebuked by none other than Catherine, who claims that, despite being a gifted girl able to become “an excellent man of business”, Hester cannot in fact become one, due to the fact that the world would only tolerate an old woman in such a position, but never a young girl. The only way for a young woman to become active in business would be to marry a businessman. Not without some bitterness, Catherine implies that the world only accepted her as head of the bank, because she was already in her late thirties when she took the position – a time when society already considered that marriage was no longer an option for her.

The highlight of the novel, for me, was the fact that it subtly shifts the perspective traditionally adopted in a marriage plot: unlike other novels of the time, here the moral dilemmas Hester is faced with are not centred on marriage nor men, but on her relationships with other women – particularly, with her mother and Catherine. Furthermore, the novel challenges the idea that women could not succeed on the public sphere. In the character of Catherine, it reverses the expected private/public dichotomy concerning women’s roles. Unlike what happened in Victorian times, where women’s behaviour in the public sphere was judged in the light of their private lives, Catherine’s private image is distorted by her public one. Her power in the public sphere (as bank head and local leading figure) is unquestioned; it is in her private sphere, in her role as family matriarch, that her power is challenged.

I also enjoyed the novel’s complex psychological exploration, and the way the descriptions of external landscapes often seem to be a reflection of the characters’ internal struggles and states of mind. Our narrator takes a tour of the different perspectives of many of the characters, playing with our first impressions and prejudices: more often than not, a character who seemed a perfect person in one section is revealed to be morally flawed in the next; a shallow motivation is shown to have been a complex situation. You don’t seem to be judging your characters, as much as you are shedding a light on their ambivalences, their complexities, their multiple dimensions. And we are thrown into their inner lives, where there is no simple answer: they are flawed people, trapped in a tangle of self-deceptions – and, precisely because of that, we are made to sympathise with them.

This was particularly the case with Edward and his troubled relationship with Catherine: caught between gratitude and resentment, he is torn between his duty as a foster son and his desire for freedom. Very much like him, we feel torn between a vision of Catherine’s choices either as expressions of motherly love or as an extension of her wish to power and control.

Both in Miss Marjoribanks (1866) and in Hester (1883), we have female protagonists who do not care much for romance, and who only choose marriage as a means of self-development. We have women like Lucilla Marjoribanks and Catherine Vernon, who exert power in their local communities. We have women who feel frustrated and sneered at, women who know they could do more than their societies are willing to allow them. Like Lucilla, Hester puts off marriage while she can, and has ambitions to do something that matters with her life: “I should like to do what she [Catherine] did. Something of one’s own free will – something that no one can tell you or require you to do – which is not even your duty bound down upon you. Something voluntary, even dangerous (…). That is exactly what I shall never have it in my power to do.”

In both novels, you are treading the tightrope of convention, my dear: you are refusing to trap your heroines in the cage of traditional narrative, while, at the same time, trying to remain on the acceptable vicinity of that cage – covering with satire your subtle efforts to transgress, your efforts to push us to somewhere beyond.

Yours truly,

J.


Abbott Handerson Thayer, ‘Girl in White (Margaret Greene)’, c.1888

Besides,” she said, “it was not a hero I was thinking of. If anybody, it was Catherine Vernon.” “Whom you don’t like. These women, who step out of their sphere, they may do much to be respected, they may be of great use; but ” “You mean that men don’t like them,” said Hester, with a smile; ” but then women do; and, after all, we are the half of creation — or more.”  ― Mrs. Oliphant, Hester

*

“She did not move, except now and then to put up her hand and dry the moisture which collected slowly under her eyelids. It could not be called tears. It was that extorted dew of pain which comes when the heart seems pressed and crushed in some giant grasp.” ― Margaret Oliphant, Hester

*

“Was that what they called the natural lot of women? to suffer, perhaps to share the blame, but have no share in the plan, to sympathise, but not to know; to move on blindly according to some rule of loyalty and obedience, which to any other creature in the world would be folly and guilt?” ― Margaret Oliphant, Hester

 


About the book

4 thoughts on “These women, who step out of their sphere,

  1. Good to see a high Victorian novelist exploring the inner lives of women in society; the Brontes did it in their own way, but this shows up the absences in, say, Trollope’s novels about Victorian social life. I’ve never read Mrs O, a situation that needs rectifying.
    Btw, that image top left of R Adler’s ‘Speedboat’ that you’re ‘currently reading’: I’ll look out for your impressions; I read and posted about it some years ago, and had mixed feelings: in some respects it’s one of the best things of its era

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    1. Thank you, Simon! I think you will like Oliphant 🙂 I’ve finished Speedboat and I have mixed feelings, too. I enjoyed the fact that Adler writes in a voice that is not trying to be ‘nice’. But I will be writing my review later. And now I am curious to read yours, I will check it out!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this post! Some years ago I assigned Hester in a graduate seminar and it was a big hit. I am shocked at how little I now remember about it. I liked Miss Marjoribanks a lot too, when I read it. Have you also read her autobiography? It’s so sad.

    Liked by 1 person

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