Here is a double whammy of sorts – to make up for last week’s absence of a post, and also to round things off for the summer, for Emilybooks will be enjoying a little recess over August, as I hope will you.
Last weekend took us up to Yorkshire for Deer Shed Festival, where I had lots of fun interviewing Susie Steiner about her novel Homecoming, and Samantha Ellis about her biblio-memoir How to be a Heroine. I also very much enjoyed discussing Jane Eyre with a walking book club, as we wandered through pretty, and blissfully shady, woodland.
Jane Eyre – what a corker! Of course I remember loving it when I read it as a schoolgirl: oh how I wept when Helen Burns died, longed to hear my name carried mystically on the wind, and developed a lasting love of window seats … But I was a little surprised to find it every bit as good, if not better, second-time round. Especially pleasurable was that the husband read it too in order to join us for the walk, and though I had my doubts as to whether he’d get the drama and romance of it, he was instantly hooked, and it became impossible to get him to do much else until he reached the end. Indeed there was one day when he was in a foul, grumpy mood, and I couldn’t work out what was wrong, only to discover that that morning he’d read the bit where Helen Burns died and, he sheepishly admitted, it had left him feeling upset all day. Reader, I have never felt happier to have married him!
It was a nice coincidence that I next picked up Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, a Persephone book that has been sitting on my shelf for a few months, tempting me with its siren call of pleasure lying within its enigmatic plain grey covers.
Fidelity is set in ‘Freeport’, a small town in Iowa at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ruth Holland has caused widespread outrage by running off with Stuart Williams, another woman’s husband. Mostly set just over a decade afterwards, Glaspell shows what happens when Ruth returns to the town to be with her dying father. We see how her actions have affected her family, her friends, Stuart’s wife, and also herself. For it becomes clear that it hasn’t been an easy ride off into the sunset for Ruth, indeed, she has been unable to escape the gossip that follows her to the West, so has struggled to keep servants or make any friends.
It is a difficult stay in Freeport. ‘Society has to protect itself’, and, aside from one or two friends’ loyalty, the town continues to shun her. Then Ruth is approached by Mildred, a girl who is having an affair with a married man, and who sees Ruth as someone who might understand her, offer some advice.
‘It’s love that counts, isn’t it, – Ruth?’ she asked, half humble, half defiant.
Ruth, who has lived her life adhering to this belief, falters at seeing someone on the point of following the same path. Mildred continues:
‘That town isn’t the whole of the world!’ she exclaimed passionately, after speaking of the feeling that was beginning to form there against herself. ‘What do I care?’ she demanded defiantly. ‘It’s not the whole of the world!’
… ‘But that’s just what it is, Mildred,’ she said. ‘The trouble is, it is the whole of the world.’
‘It’s the whole of the social world,’ she answered the look of surprise. ‘It’s just the same everywhere. And it’s astonishing how united the world is. You give it up in one place – you’ve about given it up for every place.’
‘Then the whole social world’s not worth it!’ broke from Mildred. ‘It’s not worth – enough.’
… ‘But what are you going to put in the place of that social world, Mildred?’ she gently asked. ‘There must be something to fill its place. What is that going to be?’
‘Love will fill its place!’ came youth’s proud, sure answer … ‘Can’t it?’
Ruth turned to her a tender compassionate face, too full of feeling, of conflict, to speak. Slowly, as if she could not bear to do it, she shook her head.
Yet, soon after this conversation, Ruth regrets her advice. She realises that ‘she had failed the very thing in Mildred to which she had elected to be faithful in herself’:
There was something in humankind – it was strongest in womankind – made them, no matter how daring for themselves, cautious for others. And perhaps that, all crusted round with things formal and lifeless, was the living thing at the heart of the world’s conservatism.
She telephones Mildred but finds it is too late; ‘Mildred had been “saved”’ and soon settles into the conventional life of the town. So, in this subtle and surprisingly gripping novel in which Glaspell shows such painful empathy with all her characters, we are faced with all the complicated ambiguity of Mildred and Ruth’s differing decisions – Ruth has been faithful to love over society but has suffered for it; Mildred reaps the rewards of having been faithful to society, but has relinquished the power of love and her own strength of character.
In both Jane Eyre and Fidelity, the marriage is portrayed as false in some way, so it is less binding that it might be otherwise. Rochester was tricked into marrying a madwoman for money, who he keeps locked in the attic. Stuart Williams’s wife hasn’t forgiven him for a short affair he had some years before. ‘Are our whole lives to be spoiled by a mere silly episode?’ he asks, stating that for two years they ‘haven’t been married’, and begging her either to forgive him or to grant him a divorce. She refuses to do either. ‘Haven’t you any humanity … Don’t you ever feel?’ he implores.
When Jane learns of the mad wife in the attic, Rochester appeals to her sympathy:
‘Give one glance to my horrible life when you are gone. All happiness will be torn away with you. What then is left? For a wife I have but the maniac upstairs: as well might you refer me to some corpse in yonder churchyard. What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?’
No doubt, Stuart Williams feels the same. Rochester then gets to the crux of it:
‘Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach? – for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.’
This was true: and while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger; look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature: consider the recklessness following on despair – sooth him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’
Still indomitable was the reply: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.’
Our heroines take opposite paths. Ruth follows Bronte’s capitalised ‘Feeling’ in her fidelity to love over society; Jane resists and follows the law instead. Ruth has the added complication of the friends and family Jane lacks, and while she goes on to suffer from the effect of their disapproval, she suffers most from the knowledge that she has made their lives difficult by their mere association with her.
And yet these paths, though seeming to go in opposite directions, have many similarities. Jane and Ruth both steal away in the middle of the night to escape to places unknown. Jane then suffers acutely – sleeping out on the moors, nearly dying from starvation, surviving only thanks to the pity of St John and his sisters, who take her in and then set her up as a schoolmistress – whereas Ruth might at first be happy in ‘the sweetness of believing herself loving and loved’, but suffers before long, in her awful discovery that ‘the town is the whole world’ and love is not enough to fill that gap. Jane might succeed where Ruth fails in making friends and establishing herself in a new community but both heroines suffer from loneliness – for Ruth it is because she has turned her back on society, for Jane because she has turned her back on love.
When St John asks Jane to marry him so that they might be missionaries in India together, she says:
‘I scorn your idea of love … I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer.’
It is after this that she hears Rochester calling her name on the wind, and then:
I broke from St John … It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.
She returns to Rochester, discovers his wife has died, which removes the impediment to their union, and so we get the happy ending of, ‘Reader I married him.’
Ruth returns to Stuart after her time in Freeport, and, after a few months, to their great surprise they find that his wife has at last granted him a divorce. So the impediment to their legal union is also removed. Stuart says they must get married. Ruth, however, hesitates, realising that her life and happiness no longer lie with Stuart:
The thing that made me go with you then is the thing that makes me go my way alone now.
So like Ibsen’s Nora, she goes her own way, reflecting in a burst of positivity:
Love could not fail if it left one richer than it found one. Love had not failed – nothing had failed – and life was wonderful, limitless, a great adventure for which one must have great courage, glad faith. Let come what would come! – she was moving on.
If marriage is what the books are all about, then Jane and Ruth go in opposite directions: one heroine chooses to be alone rather than illicitly with her lover, but then marries him when she can; the other lives as his mistress for years and then leaves him. If, instead, we see the books as being about ‘fidelity’ to oneself, about having the courage to take the harder path as opposed to succumbing to the lure of the easier, then our heroines tread side by side.
When Jane is prevailed upon by Rochester and then by St John, she resists by saying first ‘I care’ and then ‘My powers were in play and in force.’ (Bronte’s italics both times.) When she does marry Rochester, it is she who does the marrying: ‘I married him’ – not he married me. Throughout the novel, Jane has the courage to take her own actions rather than bowing to the will of others. Similarly, Ruth makes her own decisions rather than being swayed by others: first in leaving home to be with Stuart and then, rather than yielding to the pressure of convention in marrying him in spite of knowing they no longer love each other, she has the strength to move on alone.
Two very different outcomes, but really I think the books share the same message of how important it is to have belief in yourself and the courage of your convictions.
I hope this is an inspiring note to leave you with over the summer!