A Lesson In Marriage From The Victorians

A Lesson In Marriage From The Victorians

I came across this short story collection by chance as I was browsing through the free eBooks available on the Book Depository website, and I have to admit that I was intrigued by the title; 'Victorian Short Stories: Stories of Successful Marriages'. The bunch of authors that have been chosen are pioneers of Victorian literature, and their work often captures snapshots of life from this period of history - Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, George Moore, Walter Besant and Henry James. I hadn't heard of any of the titles in the collection before, and I thought it wouldn't hurt to read them and see the types of marriages deemed successful at the time.

The collection consists of five stories from each of the authors:
- The Manchester Marriage by Elizabeth Gaskell
- A Mere Interlude by Thomas Hardy
- A Faithful Heart by George Moore
- The Solid Reef Company, Limited by Walter Besant
- The Tree of Knowledge by Henry James

This short story was first featured in Household Words, Christmas 1858, and tells the story of Alice - a young woman, now widowed. She is left in a precarious situation financially after the death of her husband, with no real support for herself or her disabled daughter. Mr Openshaw, a seemingly reserved gentleman, enters the picture, but is he the solution to Alice's problems?

This was my favourite story out of the collection for quite a few reasons. It is a good length for a short story - there is enough depth for it to be believable and the characters are well-developed. I think Gaskell features the right amount of description and dialogue, so that there is some variety in the narrative, making it less static. I liked the fact that Gaskell gives us the background story first and then leads up to the present, because it meant that when the action began to take place, I was already connected to Alice and her story. Gaskell was known for writing about the different echelons of Victorian society, and this is demonstrated quite well in this story - her attention to detail and her knowledge of the bigger picture in terms of the way society functioned made this interesting to read in terms of the social aspects.

In terms of characters, I think they were well-rounded. Alice is likeable and has a pleasant nature, though whilst I did empathise with her situation, I didn't feel completely captivated by her character. Mr Openshaw, on the other hand, is a different story. I adored his character - he is funny, witty, and inherently good. Whilst Alice is the archetypal Victorian woman - meek, mild and dependent - he goes against his gender role and allows himself to be affectionate and emotional.

There is an interesting twist towards the end that builds tension well, and I think it was well-intergrated into the story. It was important for the development of the relationship between Alice and Mr Openshaw, and set up the last section of the story really well.

A successful marriage by today's standards?...Yes!

This was an interesting story to read and, up until the ending, I was completely captivated by it. The plot follows Baptista, a young woman engaged to a much older, and rather unappealing, man. Before her marriage she meets an old acquaintance, and old feelings between them resurface. But when tragedy strikes, Baptista finds herself having to make some tough decisions that will change their lives forever.

This story is split into 7 parts, none of which are very lengthy. We are thrown straight into the action which set the pace well, and I found that I was completely engaged throughout. Hardy doesn't spend a lot of time focusing on details that aren't important to the plot - you get the feeling that everything he writes has purpose and meaning, and I really liked his style. He plays with tension quite well, and there were points in the story where I couldn't stop reading because I was so compelled by the events. However, the twist at the end was a major let down for me. I don't think it was necessary, and it made the story too perfect and unbelievable for me. I feel like it stunted Baptista's growth as a character, and didn't do her justice.

In terms of character, I was largely indifferent to Baptista throughout the story. At first I liked the slightly modern edge to the way she thought about things, but Hardy doesn't explore this fully - probably because he wanted to focus more on the plot - and this makes her average out into just another heroine. The decisions she makes aren't ones that I would condemn her for - she's in a difficult situation and she does what she can for the sake of her reputation. But it did make me question her motives at times.

Hardy was often critical of Victorian society in his writing, and some of this is loosely translated here. I don't think this is his best work, but it's certainly not his worst either.

A successful marriage?...Not in my opinion, but I guess it has potential.

A Faithful Heart, first published in The Speaker, 1892, follows Mr Shepherd, the Major, who enjoys his position in society and the power he yields. However, for years he has been keeping his wife and daughter a secret from the world. This story explores how their marriage works, and what happens when they are almost discovered.

I honestly didn't enjoy reading this story at all. I didn't really like any of the characters or engage with them, and I found the ending to be too anti-climatic.The Major irritated me a lot - he is selfish and ignorant, and whilst I recognise that Moore was probably trying to show an archetypal male at the time, I was too infuriated to care when reading. Alice, his wife, was admirable in her patience, but weak in every other aspect, and I didn't find their chemistry believable at all.

Having said that, Moore's writing style is brilliant, and it's sad because I think that if the plot and characters were a little stronger I would have enjoyed this more. He is subtle in his description, and he reveals things like character traits and minute details really well through speech and embedded clauses. It is also of a reasonable length - short enough to end at a point that gives readers a sense of closure, even though it is quite bittersweet. I had high expectations of Moore's work because of his reputation as a skilled naturalistic writer, and whilst I'm definitely planning on reading more of his work in the future, I do feel that this story lets him down as an author.

A successful marriage?...Absolutely not.

This story is divided into 5 Acts - though it isn't a play. It focuses on the relationship between Reggie - a young man desperate to make something of himself - and Rosie - an affluent young lady, who will not marry anyone who cannot support her love for the extravagant things in life. The best way for me to describe this story is with the words 'short and sweet'. I flew through this in no time, and it was a pleasure to read. The first Act was probably my favourite because it sets up the relationship between Reggie and Rosie so well, and it makes you want them to be together. There were points where Rosie seemed a bit too snobby, but I found myself admiring her awareness of how important financial stability was in her society. I adored Reggie's unyielding determination to excel in life, and because his motivation is outlined in the very beginning, I never questioned his feelings for Rosie.

However, the main down-side for me was that it was far too short. There wasn't a lot of shading to the characters, and I felt as though there was something missing from the story. I also think that, whilst it was very well-written, there could have been more description in places, because I did find myself a bit confused at times, thinking that the story had jumped ahead when in fact nothing major had happened.

A successful marriage?...Yes, though there are elements of dishonesty and deception that taint my outlook of it.

This is about the son and the best friend of an unsuccessful sculptor, and their realisation that they have been sparing him and his wife the humiliation of finding out that his work is worthless. This was my least favourite story of the entire collection and I genuinely don't think it does Henry James justice as an author. I didn't feel like I could connect with the characters or plot, and whilst there were times where you got glimpses of James' skill as a writer, these intervals were far apart. I couldn't even finish it - that's how bad it was. I just felt little motivation to keep reading, and I still don't know why - out of all of James' work - this was chosen for the collection. If anyone has read it, then please let me know if I'm wrong - I'm open to giving it another go.
So all in all this was an interesting collection to read. I'm glad that I read it for free, because I think that if I spent money on it I wouldn't be satisfied. You can download the free eBook from the Book Depository website, and you can also get it free on your kindle or on iBooks. The paperback is, on average, between £5 and £7 depending on where you get it from. I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of any of these authors, or anyone who found this interesting. Like I said before, it comes down to individual interpretation at the end of the day, and despite my negative experience with 2 of the stories, the other 3 were a pleasure to read.

Published by Avni Bhagwan

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