The Gilberts And Their Guests: A Story Of Homely English Life

“Miss Dale did not slight Mr Surrey’s advice: she presently seated herself before her cheerful fire, and opened the precious packet of books, as she took from it volume after volume.—‘How cheering,’ she thought, ‘is the conviction of being really cared for by a friend. How pleasant it is to obey the directions of so kind a monitor!’ And then she fell into a reverie in which memory brought before her, as in a dream, days long passed away—when her little fortune was not diminished—when there existed no necessity for the exertion of her talent. Then passed before her the first meeting with Surrey—how full of sorrow her heart had then been, and how the interest of his conversation had gradually drawn her from the weakness of indulging in unavailing regret—how almost imperceptibly she had grown to value his society, till at length it had become her highest pleasure; and now how delightful was his return!—Time had not yet robbed her of all her enjoyment.”

The solicitor Mr Gilbert lives near to the bustling country town of Woodridge with his second wife and the children of his first marriage. Sorrow has recently come to the Gilbert family: debts contracted by Edmund, the eldest son, have forced Mr Gilbert to lay off his loyal clerk, Davis, and to work long hours in an attempt to repair the family finances; while Edmund himself, ashamed and repentent, has departed for New Zealand to begin a new life. Concerned about the effect upon her husband’s health of the increased workload and incessant worry, Mrs Gilbert conceives the notion of taking in a paying guest to supplement Mr Gilbert’s earnings. Emily, the eldest daughter, suggests asking Miss Louisa Dale, a close friend of the family who lives in a cottage outside of Woodridge, to live with them, but Mrs Gilbert replies that she is sure that Miss Dale would prefer to keep her independence.

Shortly afterwards, the Gilberts receive an unexpected visit from Mr William Surrey, a cousin of Mrs Gilbert. Although a great favourite with the family, especially the youngest child, Rhoda, Surrey is an irregular visitor, preferring to maintain a rambling existence which allows him to indulge his love of nature, and which he supports through his philosophical writings, which have won him great admiration in academic circles. However, when the Gilberts’ situation is explained to him, Surrey immediately offers himself as their first paying guest.

Having suffered in her life a series of tragic blows, including the death of her fiancé, the loss of most of her fortune, and near-fatal bouts of illness, Miss Louisa Dale now lives a solitary life and supports herself somewhat precariously through the sale of her landscape paintings. The great consolation of Miss Dale’s life is her friendship with Mr Surrey, which is maintained by correspondence during his frequent absences. Miss Dale receives the news of Surrey taking up his residence with the Gilberts with pleasure, promising herself many walks in his company, and much conversation about their mutual interests, in particular literature. Indeed, it is not long before Miss Dale is aware that she cherishing warming feelings for Surrey than mere friendship. This, however, she keeps a closely guarded secret; not least because she is aware that Surrey, too, suffered a bitter romantic disappointment in his youth, and has since declared his intention of remaining a bachelor.

Another reason for Miss Dale’s reticence is that her sharp eyes have detected signs that, in spite of his resolution, Surrey is beginning to take an interest in Emily Gilbert. Emily herself, however, although the friendly affection that she feels for Surrey is quite evident, shows no symptom of wishing for a closer relationship. Indeed, from time to time, Emily seems to withdraw into herself altogether, her thoughts being hidden from her family and friends. The reason becomes apparent with the return to Woodridge of the young naval lieutenant, Charles Randall, whose parents live in the village. The two become engaged; although owing to Randall’s inability to support a wife on his current income, he and Emily must accept that it is likely to be a lengthy engagement.

Suppressing his feelings for Emily, Surrey announces his intention of leaving the Gilberts for some time, to stay with a friend and his wife. However, this visit to Sir James and Lady Dalton is hardly the balm that Surrey was seeking. Rather, as he watches his friends share both their domestic comforts and their intellectual pursuits, as well as the care of their young daughter, Lucy, it brings home to him all that he has missed in life.

In Surrey’s absence, the Gilberts take in another paying guest, a vivacious young widow called Sophy Duckenfield. Mrs Duckenfield is a cousin of Mr Gilbert’s, and has come to him for help with a complicated aspect of her late husband’s estate. Upon his return, Surrey is struck by her good looks and charm. Partly because of his determination to conquer his feeling for Emily, and partly because Mrs Duckenfield’s attentions flatter his vanity, he allows himself  to be drawn into a dangerous flirtation, and almost before he knows it is teetering on the brink of being obliged in honour to make an offer of marriage.

However, certain in his own mind that there is no real feeling on either side, Surrey extricates himself and leaves not just the Gilberts’ house but England, returning to his old peripatetic life in the painful knowledge that his conduct had lowered him significantly in his friends’ respect. Shortly afterwards, Mrs Duckenfield also departs—although not before setting her cap at, and making an obvious impression upon, Dr Bassett, the Gilberts’ family physician.

Disturbing as these events have been, much worse is to follow. The Gilberts take in another guest, an accomplished young woman called Sibella Crawford, who delights the family with her dusky beauty and her musical gifts. However, unbeknownst to the Gilberts, some years earlier, while stationed in the West Indies, Charles Randall became entangled with Miss Crawford, only his unofficial pledge to Emily standing between the two of them. Now an orphan and independently wealthy, Miss Crawford has pursued Randall to England, determined to win his love in spite of his engagement to Emily. But even as this drama begins to unfold in their house, the Gilberts collectively are distracted by a dreadful fear: that little Rhoda, the pet of the family, is beginning to lose her eyesight…

[SPOILERS]

While I’m not sure that it’s really possible to do an “Authors In Depth” study of someone who only wrote two novels, I suppose it’s the thought that counts; and on the basis of my reading of Julia Day’s second novel, I’m very much inclined to track down her first. Although it masquerades as a simple domestic tale, her 1858 work The Gilberts And Their Guests not only finds a most unusual perspective from which to tell its story, but is studded throughout with what I’m tempted to call touches of quiet revolution: moments of narrative daring, when subjects you would hardly expect to find in a mainstream Victorian novel suddenly disrupt the otherwise broadly conventional plot. The result is an intriguing piece of fiction—although one that is simultaneously quite exasperating to the reader; or, at least, to this reader.

In fact, The Gilberts And Their Guests managed to catch me on a perpetual sore spot. I have a long, long history, when reading books and watching movies, of finding myself in sympathy with the third point of any given romantic triangle. I can only assume that my ideas of what constitutes a desirable romantic partner is at odds with that of—well, almost everybody else, given the monotononous regularity with which I’m left with what seems to me a most unsatisfactory resolution to a love story.

Although its rambling narrative takes in any number of plots and subplots, ultimately the focus of this novel is on the largely unspoken triangle that forms between Louisa Dale, William Surrey and Emily Gilbert. What is unusual is that the story ends up being told chiefly from the point of view of Miss Dale, who not only conceals her own romantic longings from their object, but actively promotes a relationship between Surrey and Emily, after the latter at length recovers from the hurt and humiliation of being jilted by Charles Randall. In spite of the depth of her feeling for Surrey, in spite too of their many common interests and opinions, never does Miss Dale believe that he can return her love. Instead, from the instant she perceives that he has developed an interest in Emily, she decides that he is off-limits to herself; and not even Emily’s subsequent engagement makes any difference to her resolution to conceal herself. Indeed, ultimately it is difficult not to feel that there is a certain masochism about her determination to see her friends happy at her her own expense:

“No sooner was Miss Dale alone than burying her face in her hands she wept—wept long and bitterly. How little had the true nature of her feelings been understood. Yet could she have wished it otherwise? Oh! no, no. But she knew now that she was about to lose what had long been her most precious possession. Surrey might himself believe that his friendship for her would continue unchanged—but she could read his nature—could foresee that with the new tie awaiting him there would be room in his heart for only one affection. She would perhaps be remembered, but not with the fervent interest that surely had formerly responded to her own faithful regard—and without this how truly should she be solitary—evermore—evermore.”

One of the many interesting—and exasperating—things about this novel is that it is often difficult to pin down Julia Day’s own feelings on a given subject, and nowhere more so than with respect to how the reader is intended to react to Louisa Dale’s self-sacrifice. One thing we can say, and this is one of the really enjoyable aspects of this novel, is that Miss Dale is certainly not considered “beyond” romantic fulfillment on account either of her age, or her having been previously in love.

The text in its entirety, in fact, acts as a refutation to the conventional romantic notion that a person can only really love once. The novel abounds with second relationships: Mr Gilbert is twice married; both Surrey and Emily are thrown over by their first loves; while one of the tragedies of Miss Dale’s life is the accidental death of her fiancé, just before their long engagement was finally to end in marriage. The suggestion is that an early, unhappy experience can not only build character in the right sort of person, but pave the way for a deeper and truer love.

Although the text is never explicit, we can infer that when the story opens, Miss Dale is in her early thirties, and William Surrey perhaps five years older than her and some fifteen years older than Emily; while the events of the novel unfold over a period of five or six years. Quite early on, there is an explicit discussion of how old is “too old” when it comes to love; and significantly, it is Emily—who will be twenty-eight when she and Surrey finally come together—who rejects the idea that the passion is only for the young:

    “‘There is no harm in anything that I have ever said about them,’ cried Fanny.
    ‘No actual harm, my love, certainly: and yet it is a little hard that a lady and gentleman of middle age cannot associate together without subjecting themselves to the idle imputation of entertaining for each other a tenderer sentiment than that of friendship.’
    ‘To be sure it is!’ exclaimed Emily, ‘and I think Miss Dale would be very much annoyed if it reached her ear. I wonder though at what age people do give up being in love, as it is called. For my part I don’t see why the old should not like each other well enough to marry as well as the young.’
    ‘You need not go far for an example, my dear,’ said Mrs Gilbert, smiling, ‘your father and I certainly furnish you with one.'”

Running in parallel with this novel’s unconventional views on romantic relationships is an equally unexpected take on the male sex—or so it seems to me: here again Julia Day proves elusive. The narrative presents us with two self-appointed superior males, William Surrey himself, and Dr Bassett. Both, to differing degrees, take the female need for male guidance for granted; both express themselves without hesitation on the subject of natural female “foolishness” and “imprudence”; both tender their advice unasked for, and take any failure on the part of its recipient to act on that advice to its very letter as further evidence of her “foolishness”.

The targets of these strictures take it all in remarkably good part, particularly with respect to the rough-tongued Dr Bassett, who seems barely able to speak to a woman without rating her for something, but whose brusqueness is forgiven by his victims on the grounds of his bark being worse than his bite. If, however, any female should be so presumtuous as to offer advice or, heaven forbid, criticism in return, she is instantly reprimanded for overstepping her bounds.

The narrative never takes overt exception to this masculine assumption of superiority. It does, however, show us first William Surrey, and after him Dr Bassett, being taken in by the shallow and obvious attractions of Sophy Duckenfield, the former escaping only by the skin of his teeth, the latter falling squarely into her toils. More concerned with the character of Surrey, the narrative spends some time dwelling on the psychology of the situation, on the flaws in Surrey’s nature that allow the admiration-seeking, husband-hunting young widow to manoeuvre him, completely against his will, very nearly to the altar:

    “But although Surrey endured and sometimes even returned the tenderness thus lavished on him, for he was no ascetic—no stoic—he was as far as ever from any intention of asking the lady to be his companion for life: he was wrong perhaps, without such an intention, to continue in her society, but his conduct did not strike himself in this light. They had been accidentally thrown together, and it would be almost absurd in him, he thought, to fly from his temporary home, because a fair lady had invaded its precincts, and lavished upon him her favour. He would stand his ground manfully at all events—as to the rest, events must take their course.
    “
He could not absolutely repulse the lady’s advances, who still young and lively, with a fair share of beauty, had attractions sufficient to strike his fancy, though they could not touch his heart. He was soon in a predicament of some danger. Mrs Duckenfield, observing the increase of her influence over him, redoubled her fascinations: to resist them was wholly impossible, and without compromising his honour it would be difficult to escape from the entanglement of a tie, which in this instance he was resolved not to fetter himself with. No justification could be offered for the course which he pursued; it was altogether beneath him, but the flattery of woman’s favour lulled his reason, and made him fail to perceive that it was ungenerous of him to accept the love which he could not in full measure return: so he lingered from day to day, from week to week, in the society that he should have forbidden himself to indulge in, inhaling incense that intoxicated his senses…”

On the very brink of the abyss, Surrey pulls himself together, freeing himself from Mrs Duckenfield with a ruthlessness that the Gilberts, looking on, disapprove only sightly less than they would have done the alternative. Mrs Duckenfield is not backward about expressing her bitter resentment; but for all this it is not long before her batteries are turned upon Dr Bassett, who has had plenty to say about Surrey’s situation. Dr Bassett is in all respects a less complex character than Surrey, and we are not surprised when his defences prove entirely inadequate. The Gilbert ladies, having shaken their heads in grave disappointment over Surrey’s behaviour, respond to the doctor’s capitulation with laughter, and we can hardly blame them. It is noticeable that, subsequently, both Surrey and Bassett are considerably less vocal on the subject of “foolishness”.

These events are presented to the reader with a lack of authorial interjection that is significant in itself; and while the novel has paid, and continues to pay, lip service to the convention of natural male superiority, there is nevertheless a lurking sense here that in certain situations, the male of the species is less distinguished by his superiority than by his obtuseness.

And it is indeed William Surrey’s obtuseness in his dealings with Louisa Dale, the fact that it never so much as crosses his mind that they might be more than friends, that he is finally more attracted by Emily’s beauty and the “charming simplicity” of her character than by Louisa’s intellectual capacity and emotional depth, that makes this novel so very frustrating. And here again I am not quite sure of Julia Day’s point—which is, perhaps, nothing more complex than “love’s a bitch”.

Be that as it may, a great deal of this novel’s interest lies in scenes between William Surrey and Louisa Dale; and quite a number of unexpected things take place when they are together. The warm yet slightly adversarial nature of their friendship is made apparent at their very first exchange, during which Miss Dale declines to be advised in the matter of her painting, by which she earns a slender self-sufficiency:

    “‘I assure you this little success is a surprise to myself; I feel that my poor efforts have been rewarded with more indulgence than they deserve; but it is a happy circumstance for me, as you, who know pretty well the state of my finances, can easily imagine.’
    ‘But I must be permitted to repeat the caution which I have already given. It will be the height of imprudence to rely solely on so precarious a mode of support, especially with your uncertain state of health.’
    ‘There is no help for it; I have no other resource.’
    ‘You have relatives, affluent relatives.’
    ‘Yes, and I have also an antipathy to a state of dependence.’
    ‘Yet a home you must have.’
    ‘Do you not find me in one? You will say it is built upon the sand, for this is its only foundation,’ she said, faintly smiling, and laying her hand on the easel.
    ‘Ah!’ sighed Surrey, ‘you are impracticable.—impracticable as I have ever found you.'”

Miss Dale’s determined independence of thought and action displays itself quite startlingly in the novel’s most unexpected subplot, in which she provides a refuge for a “fallen woman”—a Mrs Copeland, who some years earlier was seduced into an affair, was  brought by her remorse to confess to her husband, and subsequently felt the full weight of society’s fury. Banished from her home, and her child, cut off from everything and everyone she had known, left somehow to support herself, and finally with her health failing, the desperate Mrs Copeland appeals for help to Louisa Dale, the friend of her youth—and not in vain.

Here, fascinatingly, Julia Day finds plenty to say, both in her own voice and in that of her characters. While not condoning Mrs Copeland’s transgression, Day is savage on the double standard, and the brutality of the punishment meted out to the sinning woman, while the man goes scot-free; even going so far as to touch upon the subject of the prevailing divorce laws.

Here Miss Dale, having settled her friend in the cottage in which she will live out the few weeks left to her, reflects upon her situation as she walks home:

    “‘Poor Jane!’ thought she, ‘poor, poor Jane! Alas! what anguish has she earned through one guilty step! But can it be right that this single lapse from social virtue, so long repented of, should remain for ever unpardoned?—that the affection of her own child—the child she once loved so intensely, and of whom she dares not now trust herself to speak—should be irretrievably alienated from her; that no woman’s heart should turn towards her with compassion—should reverence her noble toil, self-imposed that she may not eat of the bread of the wronged husband or of the base seducer? Is the one sin to be for ever remembered against her, and the penitence which led her to renounce it to pass unheeded?’…”
    “And if but a just amount of suffering had been imposed on the erring woman, how had society dealt with the acknowledged partner of her crime—her tempter, her seducer? Had it thrust him forth with ignominy? Had it closed to him one avenue to prosperity—to happiness? Was he not at this very moment an approved servant of the state, loaded with dignity, regarded with reverence? Was he not a cherished husband, an honoured father? For him the world had no memory of the transgression that had severed the holiest bonds of social life. Indignant virtue was satisfied to inflict no chastisement on the strong, it poured the full measure of its wrath on the weak.”

Later, as Mrs Copeland nears death, and with Miss Dale damaging her own health by nursing her, Mrs Gilbert and Mr Surrey worriedly discuss the situation, including the responsibility of Mrs Copeland’s implacable relatives. Significantly, neither Mrs Gilbert nor Mr Surrey—who has met and conversed with Mrs Copeland, treating her with ordinary politeness and concealing his knowledge of her history—condemn Miss Dale for helping her outcast friend:

    “‘She has been so completely cast off by them all, that the very mention of an appeal to them now agitates her painfully, but I understand that she has at last expressed a wish to see her daughter, who is to be summoned forthwith. It will be a terrible meeting. She left this daughter a mere child, and has never since beheld her.’
    ‘There is something deplorably at fault, Margaret, in the moral treatment which cases of this unfortunate description receive at the hands of society; the day must come that they will be more wisely dealt with.’
    ‘You would not wish them to go unpunished?’
    ‘I would at least not have all the punishment fall one one side, and that the weakest,’ answered Surrey.
    ‘It is a very difficult subject to interfere with,’ observed Mrs Gilbert.
    ‘It is, and we must have patience. There must be a gradual recognition of many errors in our social system before any rational change can be effected in our manner of dealing with it.’
    ‘I confess I am of the opinion it had best remain as it is,’ said Mrs Gilbert: ‘marriage cannot be regarded in too sacred a light.’
    ‘True: but its being rendered more easily dissoluble by law would, I believe, rivet rather than loosen the true nature of such a bond,’ said Surrey.

And on top of all this, Julia Day allows herself a little irony: it is via her pen that Mrs Copeland has been supporting herself in her troubles, her moral tales delighting a reading public that would no doubt flee from them in horror, were they acquainted with the author.

I know of few novels so unabashedly a fan of literature of all levels as The Gilberts And Their Guests. Not only Mrs Copeland but also Mr Surrey supports himself by writing, and all of the positively presented characters are great readers. One of the highest marks of Surrey’s regard for Miss Dale, and the one most gratefully received, is that he is always bringing her books. Various works receive approving mention along the way: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House Of Seven Gables, Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village, Washington Irving’s Sketch-Book, and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller and The Deserted Village, among others. However, the final word on the subject goes to Surrey’s friend, Lady Dalton:

    “Among works of higher importance some of the light literature of the day was always to be found on Lady Dalton’s reading table. She had a keen sense of enjoyment in the perusal of the imaginative and well-constructed novel, where neither nature nor art was outraged for the purpose of enforcing theological dogma or moral axiom. Any true picture of life, any delicate touch of well-directed satire, any shadowy form, which the wand of genius, only could evoke, had for her infinite charm. For art’s sake, she valued the work of art, and for art’s sake she reverenced the artist.
    “‘I never close a book that has instructed, or even simply interested me,’ she said one day to Mr Surrey, ‘without a feeling of lively gratitude towards the author; and more than this, for the mental feast that has been afforded me, I offer up silent thanksgiving, no less devout than that which I give for daily bread.'”

Amen, sister.

And with the tone of Lady Dalton’s benediction, and that allusion to “theological dogma”, we pass to Julia Day’s final bit of daring: her attitude to religion. Granted, my appreciation for – and understanding of – this aspect of the novel follows chiefly from my reading of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement.

Early in the novel, Emily Gilbert attracts the attention of the new minister, Mr Sandham. She dismisses him without hesitation, disliking his attitudes; and when he is praised for his dedication, she counters that she considers him narrow-minded and bigoted. A specific criticism is that he spends more time raising money to restore his church than he does serving his flock. This latter fixation paves the way for the revelation of Mr Sandham as very “High Church”, almost Anglo-Catholic, and therefore by definition (according to much of the literature of this time) overly interested in the externals of worship. Rejected by Emily, Mr Sandham turns his attention to her younger sister, Fanny, in whom he finds the helpmate he’s been looking for—though in saying so, Julia Day intends no praise of her:

“Fanny, after the first shock occasioned by her sister’s calamity, evinced her sympathy in little beyond the peevish lamentations over it in which she occasionally indulged; and engrossed by the interests of her new position, had not much time to bestow on her former home. In the contracted views entertained by her husband her narrow mind found congenial attention. She was content to believe that in the precise observance of certain appointed forms her highest duty lay, and her intellect, such as it was, became day by day more cramped.”

But perhaps Miss Day’s objections are not merely to the High Church approach to religion. Well before this, we are privy to a remarkable exchange between Mr Surrey and Miss Dale, the subject some dangerous verses written by the latter, which remind us that not all 19th century religious controversy was about the finer points of doctrine:

    “‘You must not allow your very orthodox friends to have a sight of these verses, excellent as in my opinion they are. Lock them in your desk. You are not half careful enough. Why run the risk of being tabooed by your matter-of-fact neighbours?’
    ‘My being known as the writer of those lines could scarcely bring about such a catastrophe as that.’
    ‘I beg your pardon, it would be very likely to do so; they might be considered to savour of sceptical philosophy: and although now the spirit of inquiry is bolder than ever, on the other hand the orthodox get more sensitive than ever to the least deviation from orthodoxy. Take my advice, go your own way, but keep your own counsel.’
    ‘What you call my own way is a way into which you first led me,’ said Miss Dale.
    ‘That may be, but to you, who are a thinking person, the subjects you have lately been revolving in your mind, the very spirit of the age would have brought before you through some other channel, if no such person as I had been in existence,’ said Mr Surrey.”

So—to recapitulate, we have: the humiliation of dependence; a woman’s right to support herself through her own labour; the iniquity of the double standard; a plea for the revision of the divorce laws; and a smattering of religious scepticism.

Not too shabby, for a novel that bills itself simply as “A Story Of Homely English Life“.

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4 Comments to “The Gilberts And Their Guests: A Story Of Homely English Life”

  1. You seem to be building up a fine list of counterexamples for people who like to say “all novels of period X are like Y”.

    Even so, it seems a pity to me that the resolution as as you hint it to be; I often feel as you do with respect to romantic triangles, and I suspect that this may be quite common, because in order for there to be any tension about whether the protagonist will choose the wrong person that wrong person must at least seem a credible contender.

  2. “We must have patience. There must be a gradual recognition of many errors in our social system before any rational change can be effected in our manner of dealing with it.”

    Right on — Julia Day is a true victorian liberal, and therefore officially awesome.

  3. I feel I’ve done extremely well with my random novels, which collectively have had a LOT of unexpected things to say. This one is the most surprising of all, though, because it’s such a thoroughgoing Victorian work. I will certainly try to find Day’s other novel, but perhaps I should also look out for more books issued by this publisher?

    I wonder if The Gilberts And Their Guests made the circulating libraries? I can’t imagine the almighty Mudie approving of it.

    This is a good example of my experience with romantic triangles, where the party who seems to me the obvious choice gets left. There’s nothing wrong with Emily Gilbert – she’s a nice girl – but that’s all she is. On the other hand, we have this interesting, intelligent, courageous woman…and she doesn’t get a second glance. Day may be making a cynical point there, but there’s nothing in the tone of the concluding passages that lets you know for sure.

    (I tend to place my experience with romantic triangles in the same basket as my habit of siding with the mad scientist, and the monster, and the killer animal—things never end well for me. I have a wonderful capacity for backing losers.)

  4. On the question on how old is too old to love, Marianne in Sense and Sensibility states, “A woman of 28 is to old to ever feel or inspire love again. If she would to marry a man of 35, he for the sake of a nurse, and she for the sake of security, in my eyes it would be a mere business transaction, and no true marriage at all.” (paraphrased). Of course, in a few years, the poor thing’s opinions are radically and forcibly changes.

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