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Bookery: A Brief Review of “Lizzie Leigh”

The brevity of this review is based on the length of the work itself, often termed a short story, but I think it is more or less a novella due to its division into chapters.

“Lizzie Leigh,” like Mary Barton, involves a fallen woman who is, believe it or not, the title character. Like Esther (the fallen woman of Mary Barton), Lizzie is marginalized for most of her narrative and is referred to only in name. She makes her first appearance in the present in Chapter III, at which point she is referred to simply as “the shadow” and “the mother.” In Chapter IV, she experiences a slight gain in her social standing. In terms of the narrative, she enjoys being addressed in the exposition by her name while she is present rather than as a non-entity. She is “redeemed” by the tragic death of her child and allowed to live. Yes, that’s right… I said live. She neither dies nor marries but occupies a small secluded cottage praying for forgiveness and emerges when tragedy strikes others. (Dare I say she is a bit like the patron saint of sorrow?) So, I suppose she is also a little bit like Helen Huntingdon sans the death of the child and the reentry into society as a happily married woman, but I have already discussed her in a previous post.

This is a VAST improvement from the utterly tragic ending of Mary Barton, also discussed in a previous post. Lizzie demonstrates her duality in possessing two names (she is called “Bessy” by her coworkers). Otherwise, she is relatively singular. Still, the possession of an alias creates a double of sorts, and I think she will make it into the thesis.

Now, to begin an arduous journey through the 704-page beast that is Wives and Daughters. I noted on GoodReads.com that the novel’s average rating is somewhere around 4.10, so I’m hoping that the page length is worth it. Aside from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Bible, it will be the longest book I have ever read (all my non-English major friends mocked me for it… I am ashamed…)



Filed under Books, British, Gaskell, Literature, Progress, Thesis, Victorian

Bookery: A Quick Skim of Mary Barton (and a touch of Bronte)

Ladies and gentlemen, I have done the impossible: I have read, or rather skimmed, a 500-page-book in two days, but before I get into that, I have completed The Tenent of Wildfell Hall and must say that the conclusion is significantly different from other “Fallen women” novels in that Helen is redeemed into society’s fold. Somehow, I think this has more to do with the fact that the blame was clearly placed on Huntingdon than the fact that she willingly revealed her duality to Gilbert, who unveiled it to society and decided to marry her, thereby becoming the heroic ideal husband and reinforcing the princess-in-the-tower mentality that only men can rescue a girl trapped in a run-down tower (or manor, in this case) who has estranged herself from her husband for the sake of maintaining the morality of her infant son. Okay, the whole “princess-in-the-tower” thing does not involve all of that, but seriously… it kind of reminds me of Snow White/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty sans the absolute purity, the harem of tiny men, the glass slipper, and the giant witch/dragon (COOL).

And now, cue rant mode… despite the fact that I have a separate blog for that.

The ending of Mary Barton pissed the living hell out of me, and here is why: the entire novel, like many Victorian novels, involves the precarious morality of the title character who is influenced by her Aunt Esther’s ideas of becoming a lady of society. It is later revealed that Esther was the mistress of an officer, bore a child who fell ill, and, in a failed attempt to save the child’s life, becomes a prostitute. As if all of this were not enough, Esther returns to be assaulted verbally and physically by John Barton (Mary’s father) due to his blame of her for the death of other Mary Barton (John’s wife). She surfaces at several other points, mainly in relation to Mary’s morality and why she has the immoral thought to (God forbid!) raise her position in society (except that the guy she had eyes for was a complete douche who never really wanted to marry her and who thought they “could be happy enough without marriage” (169). Esther returns at several other points in the narrative, first to see Jem and notify him of the danger Mary is in, then to visit Mary herself, but not as a prostitute. No, in order to go before Mary, she must provide a moral facade, and she chooses to be “Mrs. Fergusson” of “Angel Street,” the innocent wife of a mechanic (299).

Now, relying on Jem for help was one thing since Jem had prior to professed his love for Mary, and disguising herself was pretty inventive, too (it also fits in well with my whole duality thing). What I absolutely cannot stand is the way Gaskell builds up the conclusion for Esther’s salvation (Mary and Jem, now married, and Jem, having unveiled Esther’s true profession, resolve to take Esther in and remind her of her morality) only to literally throw the whole thing in the gutter and leave it there to die. After searching for Esther, they find her by chance (three cheers for coincidence!) as she wanders to the place of her better days to die. They take her upstairs, chuck her on the bed, and wait for the inevitable end, and when it comes, I could not BELIEVE that it was not nearly as moving as John Barton’s. I mean, come on… he shot a rich guy! …granted that guy was a total jack-ass and an unidentified threat to his daughter’s morality, but that’s beside the point! To make matters even worse, they bury Esther with John in the same grave and inscribe it not with the names of the deceased but a very fitting Bible verse.

Ultimately, the conclusion says that the good will be rewarded, the bad will be punished, and the fallen woman can never ever be redeemed in the eyes of society even if there are people willing to do it. She can’t even have her own grave that tells of her redeeming points, something like, “Here lies Esther ‘Butterfly’ Barton-Fergusson, Devoted Mother, Mistress, and Wife… Sort of.” (I know that would never happen in the Victorian period… trust me.) It also equates the crimes of murder and prostitution in a sense, but to me, John is elevated above Esther in that he is provided with the forgiveness of the victim’s father in his dying moments and is even held by the mourning father as he passes from one world to the next. Esther cries herself to death, and after the funeral, everyone lives happily ever after… in Canada. The end.

The feminist in me is very frustrated. I’m almost afraid to read “Lizzie Leigh,” but the show (and the thesis) must go on!


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Finishing Villette, and Progress on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

*Warning: This post contains spoilers for Villette. Read at your own risk.

Honestly, I couldn’t write a blog post after I finished Villette. I’m pretty sure I strongly dislike the ending. Not to spoil it for anyone but the ending is mildly indeterminate, and other signs in the book lead me to believe that it is not the classic “Happily ever after” I have come to expect from British Victorian literature. It makes me mildly sad. Still, I don’t regret reading it, what with the delightful interplay of ice and fire. At the same time, the message that the end of the book sends is that two people with differing faiths cannot be allowed to unite, which was quite a letdown. Then again, the conclusion reflects the stringency of British Victorian morals and their strict adherence to all actions that would stabilize society. If a British Protestant went to a French metropolis and married a Catholic, then that would not be doing anything for the aforementioned social structure.

The ending also makes me question how this conclusion would have been different if the one who uprooted and sought a profession in France had been a man. The gender stratification is relatively clear in that men at Madame Beck’s academy receive the title with more clout (Professor), whereas women are confined to the role of “Teacher” (maybe I am taking this anachronistically, for I am making the assumption that today’s connotations align with those of the 1800s, but I can’t see how there could be a drastic difference). Therefore, I wonder if the conclusion would be different if it were a British man uprooting to France, or even a French man uprooting to Britain.

No sooner was Villette finished (the 9th of May, 11:22 pm, to be precise) did I move on to the next novel on my list: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, which really does (as my thesis adviser said it would) resemble Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. The main character (Helen) reminds me of Lucy, but she also reminds me a bit of Gaskell’s Ruth in that she tries to endure the injustices a man of society has wrought upon her. At the same time, the structure reminds me a bit of Wuthering Heights in that Anne Bronte uses a frame narrative structure that begins with a male protagonist, but unlike Lockwood, Gilbert is actually involved with the plot and receives the honor of narrating the first 90 or so pages before the narrative shift occurs, then to Helen’s diary. Like Ruth and Lady Audley’s Secret, this novel demonstrates the plight of women and the manner in which they are trapped by men and by society despite their efforts to move past transgression. In all three novels, tactics for discarding the past self involve adopting new names and moving to new geographical locations, which thereby creates a sort of dual self, but society seldom allows these women to enjoy their limited freedoms as the “secret self” of the past is always unveiled and any chance at integration destroyed beyond repair. In the novels I have already finished (more spoilers), both female protagonists are silenced by death. I wonder if it will also be the case in this novel.

Interestingly enough, a child is also involved in the three aforementioned novels, and in all three cases, this child is a son. In Ruth and Wildfell Hall, it seems like the presence of a son serves as an opportunity for redemption, and both suffer from the stained reputation of their mothers. In Lady Audley’s Secret, the child seems to be nothing more than an extraneous device that serves as a sign of past impurity, which is not surprising due to the matrimonial nature of her escape from her past life.

That is all I have for now. If my adviser verifies my selection, then I will be spared 1500 pages of reading.

Onward with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!


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