Wednesday, 21 August 2013

"A Lady Involves So Much Expense"

The characters in Verner's Pride are not lumbered with much depth and subtlety. They do not develop as the narrative progresses: "In little things as in great, Lionel Verner could but be a thorough gentleman, to be otherwise he must have changed his nature." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 9). This array of flat, somewhat stock characters helps Verner's Pride to take a comic (and critical) look particularly at upper class ladies with their idleness and profligacy and working class women with their gossiping and credulousness. The upper class ladies lead a distinctly idle life. The lower class women are much more enterprising and active. They stage a riot and smash the windows of Peckaby's shop (Verner's Pride, Chapter 22). They fortify themselves with drink and go ghost hunting (Verner's Pride, Chapter 51). But for women on all levels of society, marriage and husbands are central as providers of material comforts.

Mrs Verner spends her days eating and sleeping. She "liked to take her share of the dessert, if the others did not, and she generally remained in the dining-room for the evening, rarely caring to move. Truth to say, Mr Verner was rather addicted to dropping asleep with her last glass of wine and waking up with the tea-tray" (Chapter 3). She absolutely refuses to change her habits for the sake of her health. (Chapter 31).

Lady Verner, Lionel's mother, is woman accustomed to luxury, never reconciled to the fact the Verner's Pride was inherited by her husband's younger brother rather than by her son (Verner's Pride, Chapters 1 and 11). "Her income was sadly limited ... her habits were somewhat expensive." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 11) Her finances fluctuate with Lionel's fortunes; her carriage and horses are kept or lost depending on whether Lionel is the master of Verner's Pride (Verner's Pride, Chapters 33, 46). We first meet her "sitting in idleness ... - she always did sit in idleness" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 10).

At the other end of the social scale, Mrs Duff is the "linen-draper-in-ordinary to Deerham," (Verner's Pride, Chapter 3), a widow with a "flock" of children and a successful business she runs as the gossip-HQ of the village. Her friend Susan Peckaby runs a grocery store with her husband (Verner's Pride, Chapter 22). "A tall, strong brawny man was he; his wife was a remarkably tall woman, fond of gossip and of smart caps. She would go gadding out of hours at a stretch, leaving him to get through all the work." (Ibid.)

Sibylla West, the ambitious daughter of a country doctor deep in debt, is the seductive femme fatale of the story. She is a villain, and the narrative takes immense delight in her misbehaviour: "She cried, she sobbed, she protested, she stormed, she raved." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 70) She is a typical sensational female villain: she is not calculating and plotting but rather a victim of her own uncontrolled impulses and desires. She is selfish, greedy, restless and loud. She is a woman out of control. She is not ladylike, even if at first glance she looks the part. "of real beauty she possessed little. A small, pretty doll's face with blue eyes and gold-coloured ringlets; a round face, betraying nothing very great, or good, or intellectual; only something fascinating and pretty." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 12) Sibylla wants Verner's Pride, she just has to marry the right man, or two at the same time, and one of them maybe a murderer.

The good woman in the story is Lucy Tempest, who, in the end, wins Lionel's heart and becomes the mistress of Verner's Pride. She has completed her schooling with "a clergyman's family" and has been parked with Lady Verner to await for her father Colonel Tempest to return from India (Verner's Pride, Chapter 11). Lucy is described as a child: "she looks but a child. ...  A very pleasant-looking girl." She has "a frank sincerity of manner perfectly refreshing in these modern days of artificial young ladyism." (Ibid.) She has the "manner of a timid school-girl. .. A child of seven might have been so dressed." "Lucy Tempest was thoroughly and genuinely unsophisticated" (Ibid.). "A delightful child," Lionel thinks. (Ibid.) Lucy is eighteen years old (Ibid.). This is our traditional Victorian heroine - child-like, virtuous and simple-hearted. Through all of Lionel's trials and tribulations - including his disastrous first marriage - Lucy sympathizes her socks off. Lucy's actions in the narrative are very limited; her sole role is to provide a thoroughly good love interest for Lionel. They will make a very boring couple, even if a happy one.

Brother Jarrum from Salt Lake City, Utah appears in town (Verner's Pride, Chapter 34). In no time "Women of all ages flocked in to hear him." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 39). Brother Jarrum promises "husbands to all. Old or young, married or single, each was safe to be made the wife of one of these favoured prophets the instant she set foot in the new city." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 39). He describes the beautiful houses and fertile vegetable and fruit gardens, a ballroom "not far from a hundred feet long," theatres, dancing and abundant suppers on offer to those who join the Mormons. But it gets even better: 

"If you see two females in the street, one a saint's wife, the t'other a new arrival, you can always tell which is which. The wife's got a slender waist, like a lady, with a delicate colour in her face, and silky hair; the new-comer's tanned, and fat, and freckled, and clumsy." (Ibid.)   

And what is more, according to Jarrum, "servants here are not servants there. Who'd be a servant if she could be a missis?" (Ibid.) There are no old maids nor widows among the Mormons (Ibid.). This dream catches the imagination of the Deerham women: what Brother Jarrum describes to them is a life-style similar to that of the upper class Verner-ladies - fundamentally idle.

The Mormons way of life is directly contrasted with Sibylla's possible bigamy: "The second can't be her husband; it would be as bad as those Mormons." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 60). The narrative introduces a dimension of social criticism and asks us to consider the two different worlds of the rich and the poor squeezed into the same physical space of Deerham. This social dimension is much stronger in the story of Alice Hook.

Lionel wants to make "improvements." He feels guilty for the miserable living conditions of the estate workers: "It shall not be said that while I live in a palace, my poor live in pigsties." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 34). He visits the working class hovels and comes face to face with their poverty. He is appalled by what he sees (Verner's Pride, Chapter 25). The situation culminates in the misfortune of Alice Hook, "a little more than a child" who "had, as the Deerham phrase ran, got herself into trouble." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 46) Now she was "the talk of the village." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 53). Alice's fall is blamed on her sleeping arrangements: in a single room with her parents and siblings. (Verner's Pride, Chapters 46, 53) The narrative brings this point home:

"Did you ever pay a visit to a room of this social grade? If not you will deem the introduction of this one highly coloured. ... on a straw mattress, slept three sons, grown up, or nearly so; between these beds was another straw mattress where lay Alice and her sister, a year younger, no curtains, no screens, no anything." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 54).

Alice Hook appears in the narrative just as Sibylla's extravagant spending drives Lionel inescapably towards "embarrassment." Lionel feels responsible for Alice's "blight" (Verner's Pride, Chapter 46, 55), "People are saying that if I gave them decent dwellings, decent conduct would ensue." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 55). Lionel has to make a choice whether to lavish his money on luxuries for his wife and mother or spend it to improve the lives of people like Alice. "Between the building programme and Sibylla, he was drained." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 46).  There is a direct comparison between the lives of Sibylla and Alice when Lionel thinks of the spacious bedrooms of Verner's Pride compared to the single bedroom for "those poor Hooks" (Ibid.).

This social commentary embedded in Verner's Pride is not very subtle. It is digressive. Brother Jarrum's preaching and the incidents that follow on from it, do not contribute to the main plot about the inheritance of Verner's Pride. Lionel's desire to make "improvements" in his workers' living conditions is a crude way of highlighting his good character and Sibylla's bad one; again, it does not affect the main plot. However these themes add to the narrative by broadening its social canvas and making it more interesting and convincing by being more inclusive. Instead of narrowly focusing on the resolution of the mysteries of Rachel's death, the missing codicil and ghost, Verner's Pride has given space in the narrative to the lives and voices of poor characters, most significantly to poor women. These characters may not be subtly drawn, but they make a valuable and interesting contribution to the narrative.

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