Indeed, since the time of that unhappy marriage, Minna had never found herself so quietly content; and her dark beauty bloomed again, more softened now by the expectant wistfulness that her girlhood had not known. There were certain pleasures in the freedom that now belonged to her, the establishment that she could order for herself, the luxuries unknown before, in the midst of which she lived. If there was indeed something unreal about these things, like little devices by which men cover chains, she tried as best she could to think no more of that. She was lovely still, the society of the neighbourhood had not disowned her, her chosen friends were near her, and the day must yet come when her husband would return to her.
Minna’s first decisive acts after her husband’s departure are to secure a companion for herself, to help ward off the inevitable gossip, and to take steps for the appointment of a new estate agent—exercising her authority as Lady Farnim.
Here Leap Year opens up slightly, as we begin to consider the lives and experiences of the two young people whose fate is to be drawn into Minna’s isolated world; and the characters we meet as a consequence are little less fundamentally imperfect than Minna herself. The son of a vicar, Frank Mannian is that most anomalous of figures, a poor gentleman. He has had a gentleman’s education, and is thus most unfitted to earn a living—while facing the absolute necessity of doing so, not least because the alternative is a continued stifling existence in straitened circumstances in company with his unhappy father and his selfish great-uncle.
The Reverend Mr Mannian is another of this novel’s self-afflicted characters. In a rapidly sketched background, we learn of the family pressure to take orders, and his absolute determination not to—until it is borne upon him that he cannot win the girl he loves any other way. But having compromised his principles in the pursuit of happiness, Mr Mannian finds his rewards turning to ashes in his mouth: he learns to hate his work and his parish and most of all himself, until he suffers the crowning blow of his wife’s early death. The shock and misery brings on a near-permanent state of depression, mingled with an almost unacknowledged determination never to allow himself to feel a real affection for any other human being—not the parishioners he attends, nor the small son left to his care. And indeed, our glimpses into Frank’s upbringing are enough to make the blood run cold:
As the years went on, and the sense of duty began to assume its place amidst the trouble and confusion of his mind, some ideas of training and direction began to enter there. But these found their chief expression in an inward determination that the boy should not be spoilt.
Frank was not spoilt: on the contrary his education had Spartan tendencies that it needed some courage to endure… His father he saw very little, seldom even at meals, most often when he was summoned to the study to tell how he had been getting on at school, or to receive that discipline of the rod which formed a considerable part of Mr Mannian’s ideals on education. Not that, even in his father’s eyes. there was much need for that in this particular instance: the boy was bright and truthful, with no grain of viciousness or temper in the thoughtless scrapes into which he fell, and of which complaints were made—but then such chastisement formed a portion of his theory, and on whom are we to try our theories if not on the one human being that is committed to our charge?
And although Frank’s natural resilience and buoyancy of temperament mean that his father’s “theory” leaves him less damaged than we might expect, damage has been done, as is progressively revealed by his stubborn tendency to take steps that he knows will end up hurting himself, and – the abused becoming the abuser – a certain capacity for cruelty, as we see in his early dealings with Amy. The two end up travelling together by train for Landene, and no sooner has Frank absorbed the fact that Amy is frightened and shy than he amuses himself by forcing his company and conversation upon her. And it is Frank who, realising that in her innocence Amy has accepted the prevailing explanation for Lord Farnim’s absence, compels her to understand the anomalous position in which Minna stands, and the reasons for it, and that as a consequence her own position is not the blessed refuge she had imagined.
Amy’s own story is something we hardly expect to find in a Victorian novel, that bastion of gladly self-sacrificing women. The oldest of twelve children, obliged to spend every waking moment in the drudgery of housework and the education of her younger siblings, Amy’s sacrifice is anything but glad, but rather one carried out with dragging feet and a smothered sense of resentment; a stance in which her author wryly supports her – and rebellious women generally – while recognising too the often unacknowledged dangers of “duty”:
Poor Amy! More delicate than her mother, better educated than her mother, she found it more hard than her mother had done to give herself to the household duties that claimed her life. And, indeed, there is no use denying that there are conditions of life that press with exceeding weight upon the young souls and bodies that have to grow up under them as best they may.
But here it is possible to be met by the statement that household duties form after all the highest ideal to which womanhood can aspire, and that a mother and a sister need wish for no greater pleasure or higher glory than that of seeing round them a well-ordered home. One can only reply that such a statement is indeed true, but that the highest good, in order to be perfect, needs to be chosen, and that in the world around us curious consequences sometimes follow upon enforced ideals.
What, for instance, can be more beautiful than that fancy of an elder sister, guiding, directing, managing, clung to as a second mother by the younger lives that owe so much of their instruction and their guardianship to her? No doubt that ideal can be true. But then in real life tempers are short, and trials are wearing, and there comes a danger of unpleasant associations connected with the young souls over whom so much of care and anxiety has been spent, as there may rise in the young souls themselves a conviction that elder sisters are cross though necessary things, whom it would be pleasant to get rid of…
Those opening remarks about Mrs Merse should not lead us to think that she has not found her life brutally hard. On the contrary; and this is at the root of her determination, when the offer is made to Amy of a position of companion to Lady Farnim, that her eldest daughter should seize this opportunity of escape. Amy’s father (who, despite being a doctor, doesn’t seem to be able to figure out a way to stop impregnating his wife, not even the obvious one) is horrified at the thought of Amy leaving home, going “into service”, and also of his wife being deprived of her eldest child’s assistance. Mrs Merse, however, puts her foot down and keeps it down; and so Amy exchanges poverty and labour for luxury, new clothes, nice food, books, a piano, the countryside, and no particular duties at all; and this being the kind of book it is, she revels in it—albeit in between fits of guilt:
Oh, was it quite right to be so entirely pleased with all the luxury around, with these great rooms, (in which, in spite of her pleasure, her shyness lingered still) this solitude and idleness, these easily gained caresses, these dresses and ornaments that could add so much beauty to her life? Far away in dusty London, Tommie must be waking in the night-time and disturbing all round him with his tears, and day-times must be hot and hard-worked, and very long to bear, and all the dreary details of refined poverty must be pressing with all their closeness on the rest. And she could not wish to be back amongst them all again; she shrank with a terror that she could not keep from herself from any thought of that—only that other feeling, lingering always near her heart, seemed to whisper that she must be very bad to be so glad to be so far away from home.
It is hard to imagine anyone these days not sympathising with Amy’s pleasure and relief in her escape, whatever Victorian readers may have made of it (and I’ll bet she found some kindred spirits there, too, whether or not they said so out loud). But Amy’s equivocal pleasure is soon threatened by Frank’s officiousness, as he forces upon her the truth of Lord Farnim’s absence, and the ugly stories attached to Minna’s name, his actions motivated equally by a sense of dissatisfaction with his own position, which makes him feel the need for a comrade-in-arms, and by a certain intellectual curiosity about what Amy’s reaction will be. He does not expect, however, and nor does he have the capacity to understand, the distress that his carelessly cruel action provokes.
We have seen enough of Amy already to know her possessed of a moral code so impractically narrow as to be unforgiveable in anyone less completely inexperienced than she, whose entire knowledge of the world is drawn from “Aunt Marian” and her judgemental anecdotes. To Amy, a wife separated from her husband is an object of horror almost beyond comprehension, there being, in her suffocatingly rigid morality, no possible excuse for such a situation (a stance which she illustrates by relating one of her aunt’s stories, an approving one about a wife who refused to leave her husband even though he regularly hit her with a poker). As for Minna herself, she is a contamination from which Amy must flee. The road before her is clear and without turns: she must write to her parents immediately, explaining her imperative need to return home at once, and follow her letter without delay.
Only it’s so comfortable at Landene. And Lady Farnim – though of course irredeemably wicked and corrupt – is so kind, and generous, and affectionate. What’s a girl to do?
Well, if the girl is Amy, it’s to put off writing that letter day by day, while suffering guilt that makes her previous qualms seem trivial, and then to send an account of her situation so oblique as to keep her parents from any real grasp of the situation, or understanding what their permission for Amy to prolong her stay with Lady Farnim actually means.
Meanwhile, Frank, apparently not content with having driven Amy into a state of acute distress, proceeds to take his dissatisfaction with himself out on Minna, by confronting her one day and coolly demanding her husband’s address. But even as the depth of Amy’s moral crisis takes him by surprise, so too is Frank entirely unprepared for the dignified and scornful Minna brought into being by his unprovoked attack, and by her discovery that he has told her story to Amy:
“It seems that I have great reason to be obliged to you, Mr Mannian,” she said. “You come to my house when my husband is away, you give me the trouble of attending to your affairs, and then when by those means you have secured some sort of footing in the place you take advantage of it to do all the mischief that you can. It is not enough for you to listen to all these false reports of me—of me who am so alone, unprotected,” her voice became almost broken here, “you must spread them even in my house, you must come to me and insult me to my face. You may leave the house, Mr Mannian, and you need not give yourself the further trouble of entering within these doors again.”
And after beginning his afternoon’s work with what, at least, seemed to him to be the moral high ground, small wonder that Frank slinks away like a whipped cur.
He does not leave Landene, however; and the following morning finds him tendering an abject apology to Minna, to which she in her emotional state responds with confidences—full confidences. No more is there any assertion of “false eports”. The whole story is poured out into Frank’s ears, and received with mingled horror and pity; and curiously enough, of all the revelations the one that shocks him the most (which is also the way in which Minna tells it) is the last one:
“And yet there is one thing… I cannot blame him… I will tell you it all, and then you will know everything of me.”
There was a long silence, whilst they did not look at each other.
“I asked him to marry me.”
And yet the final outcome of this scene is a new closeness between Minna and Frank, in which she pleads for, and receives, his promise of friendship and support. Amy, meanwhile, has compromised with her conscience by focusing upon her duty to Minna as her employer and her friend, and at length this peculiar household settles down to wile away the time, finding itself content against its expectation and almost against its will.
But their peace and quiet is short-lived. Though Frank does not, of course, live in the house, sharing instead old Bortop’s cottage out in the grounds to neither man’s satisfaction, it is not long before there is gossip about the notorious Lady Farnim and the handsome young man in her employ; gossip that spreads itself beyond Landene and its environs and eventually makes its way to the ears of Lord Farnim’s lawyer, Mr Grimson, and to those of Frank’s father and great-uncle.
Grimson, who has managed his affairs since Lord Farnim was a boy, is silently but increasingly furious over his self-imposed exile. He would have been glad, despite the scandal, had this disastrous marriage been dissolved, one way or the other, in the first place; or, failing that, would have put up with Minna’s elevation had that been Lord Farnim’s choice; but the existing limbo, which banishes the young nobleman from his home and even from his country, is more than the lawyer can bear. So it is not with any displeasure that Grimson hears the latest aspersions upon Minna, seeing, in Frank, a means to an end:
What were Mr Grimson’s desires? and what were his intentions all this while? Perhaps he never told himself distinctly. He could hardly have been actuated by any penetrating goodwill towards Lady Farnim, whom he had never seen, and young Mannian, whom he did not know—these people who had established themselves in the place that should have been his master’s home. It is probable that he regarded them rather in the light of intruders whom he would like to dispose of if he could. And, viewing things in this manner, we may perhaps arrive at the conclusion that what he proposed to himself may have been something of the nature of a test…
It is allowable, is it not? to put these little trials in the way of the human beings who are about our path, to test them, and prove them, and discover of what sort of composition their characters are made. These things may be called curious studies, discoveries, researches, interesting to the psychological minds that we possess. So at least the matter appears when viewed in its most graceful light—but an ugly judgement, sharp and bare as steel, rests, only too often, beneath our graceful words. And allowing its secret murmur to rest for a moment in our minds, we may whisper that it is a cruel thing to tempt any human soul towards a hook, and a still more cruel thing to use a young soul also as a bait.
Summoned home to face his father and learn what common report says of him, Frank stands doggedly by his promise to Minna, as much, we sense, to annoy his father as it is a matter of honour. Mr Mannian undergoes a bitter moment of revelation here, as it belatedly dawns upon him that years of pushing his son away have finally placed him quite beyond his reach. Meanwhile, we are made aware that the gossip about Frank and Minna has had a strange effect upon the individual known as Uncle Sarby. This elderly person, having many years ago battened upon his nephew-by-marriage, is a malignant presence in the Mannian household, who likes to amuse himself by hinting to his long-suffering relatives that he is much wealthier than they suppose, but since he has no intention of leaving them a penny, it doesn’t matter to them anyway.
Joining together scraps of facts like a jigsaw puzzle, Uncle Sarby finally realises that the Lady Farnim with whom Frank is supposedly carrying on is the daughter of the woman he once loved, or came as close as he was capable of to loving. This knowledge Uncle Sarby keeps strictly to himself, while startling Mr Mannian by announcing his intention of taking a journey—a journey that takes him to Landene, and to Minna, although its consequences are not apparent for some considerable time. When Uncle Sarby dies, his will reveals him to be, in his own peculiar way, a man of his word: he was much wealthier than generally supposed, having amassed over fifty thousands pounds through the winning of a law-suit; and not a penny of it does he leave to the desperately poor relatives who supported him and put up with him for so many years, instead bequeathing his entire fortune to Minna.
This windfall has little effect upon Minna, now deep in the third year of her husband’s voluntary absence and looking forward to the day in February that she has come to believe will change her life. For Frank, the matter is far otherwise. Whatever Lord Farnim’s return will mean to Minna, it can only mean exile for Frank, who does not doubt that the busy gossips would also have poured their venom into the ears of the person most concerned in it. Too late, as usual, he accepts that his championship of Minna has done him only harm, and that all he will carry away from his four years in her employment is a damaged reputation that will keep him from finding another job.
Worse still—it means the end of any hope of a future with Amy. Growing into friendship after the rocky start to their acquaintance, a terrifying accident in which the two of them are nearly drowned changes both of them, Amy in particular, who emerges from her ordeal with a new spiritual strength, and pledges her life to helping others; while Frank is altered less by his experience than by the change in Amy. The two agree to go forward together, to do what they can to help those in need—only to discover that for those poor themselves, the means of offering help can be distressingly limited. This does not, however, affect the new way in which Frank and Amy view one another; and in time they declare their feelings. Yet what future can they have together? Frank, absorbing the blow of Uncle Sarby’s cruel joke, sees before him an unavoidable fate of banishment from Landene, the surrender of his hopes of Amy, and emigration.
But as the year draws to a close, Minna’s behaviour begins to change. Throughout her husband’s exile she has held hard to the conviction that his enforced return will change everything for the better—although her reasoning on the subject is curiously opaque. We get no real sense, for instance, that she has learned to love Lord Farnim, however intensely she longs for his return, and though she often imagines herself in his embrace. Her fantasies of their reunion, during which he cannot help taking her into his arms, suggest rather her belief that once he sees her again, he will be unable to help falling back in love with her—and that this will bring in its wake everything else that Minna desires in life; everything that she dreamed of when demanding he keep his promise to her; a dream in which Lord Farnim is no more than a means to an end; a dream revealing in its very crudity:
Her husband’s presence, an assured position, society under securer footing, London gaieties, a wealthy home, and all the admiration she desired. And she would be a queen down here—and rule the estate—and be loved.
Yet in the end, Minna loses sight of her husband’s return as a definitive event, and begins to view it with something like superstitious awe, with Lord Farnim’s arrival to act like the lifting of a curse in a fairy-tale—or perhaps like the rescue of a princess from a tower. As the third year passes away, Minna looks forward with passionate eagerness to the first snows, as a sign that her captivity is nearly at an end; but when they come she is gripped by a sudden terror that drives her into ever more irrational behaviour which a despairing Amy struggles to control, with her fixation finally growing to a dangerous obsession. Finally Minna is living on her nerves; collapse is inevitable. And, taken ill, she becomes haunted by the memory of the young man who killed himself:
“How could I help it—I never pretended that I cared for him,” she said. “It seems so long ago—it hurts my head when I try to think about it now. Only that sound of a pistol, it keeps going on still within my ears. He told me he loved me—he used to tell me often that he had learnt the cards for me—he did not like the life, he would have given it up. I could have made him give it up if I had chosen then. But my father, he wished me to keep him on—and I did not care… It was in the morning—I had come home from a party, and was sitting before the glass—and then I heard the shot…”
Minna recovers from this bout of illness, but it has done damage to her physically, and even more to her mental balance. The next crisis comes upon New Year’s Eve, at the dawning of the next year, Leap Year, when Minna rises from her bed and insists upon going to the local church to pray. Amy, unable to dissuade her or restrain her, and afraid to leave her while she goes for help, ends up hurriedly dressing and accompanying her out into the bitterly cold night. The two of them end up kneeling on the icy cold stone floor at the foot of the altar, Minna trying—and failing—to pray, Amy’s own desperate prayers for help and guidance suddenly answered by the arrival of Frank, summoned and sent out by Minna’s maid after she discovered her mistress gone.
Though this journey through the snow has no consequences for Amy, Minna is again taken seriously ill—and it is soon apparent that this time she might not recover. But still she clings to the thought of her husband’s return, now as a drowning man to a straw:
It did not make the time less hard that Minna would scarcely allow that she was ill, that she would not send for the clergyman, that she listened impatiently to the Bible, and that she seemed, even in her feebleness, to resent the smallest remark that she heard upon her state. Her mind was absorbed with the one thought that occupied it, it appeared as if it were impossible to get her free from it now, the sad longing eyes that looked from her wasted face never altered their expression for an instant. And then one night in a violent fit of coughing she broke another blood vessel, and after that it became difficult for her to speak. The next morning she made signs for pen and paper, and whilst Amy steadied as well as she could her shaking hand, she traced a few words with the fingers that had written another message four years before: “I am very ill. Come to me.—Minna.” The day passed, and the night, the morning came again. All through the long hours of that long day Amy waited by her side, but Lord Farnim did not come…
Over the course of this novel, there is a gradual but unmistakeable shift in sympathy. Margaret Curtois makes no excuse whatsoever for any of Minna’s behaviour; yet the longer the story goes on, the more clearly Lord Farnim emerges not as a victim, but as the villain of the piece.
In the 19th century, the prevailing convention was that a man—a gentleman—could not break an engagement; only the woman could do that. This seeming privilege was no compliment, but based on the view of women as irrationally emotional creatures, given to changing their minds; whereas if a man broke his engagement, it would only be because there was a solid, serious reason for his doing so, such as the woman behaving improperly. A broken engagement was, therefore, damaging to a woman’s reputation as it was not to a man’s, and a serious hindrance to her marriage to anyone else.
(Beyond all this, there was also the unspoken assumption that if a woman had been engaged before, particularly if the engagement was lengthy, she was likely to be “damaged goods”.)
It is upon this basis that we are to judge Lord Farnim, and Leap Year makes it clear enough that upon receiving Minna’s demand that he keep his promise to her, only two courses of action should have been open to him. He could, in honour, have refused, given Minna’s situation; but having chosen to marry her, it was then his duty to suck it up and do right by her as his wife. His choice, his deliberate and very public abandonment of Minna three months into their marriage, is not the act of a gentleman, and this fact is deeply underscored by the increasing distress of Grimson, almost to the end Minna’s most inveterate enemy, but who like everyone else ends up pleading with Lord Farnim to give in at last and see his wife. We have been made privy to the fact that it had been Lord Farnim’s intention to resume occupation of Landene, after having first compelled Minna to remove herself to some other residence. Now, however, all he has to do is wait—and he turns a deaf ear to the pleas of Grimson, of Amy, and of Minna herself.
And in the end it is made horribly clear that Minna is being so savagely punished not for her own misconduct, but for the humiliation that Lord Farnim suffers when he realises how completely he has misread her character; that he chose to marry her not because honour demanded it, but because as a husband he would have so much more scope for his retaliation:
He looked still down on her—the beauty he had loved, the bride he had hated, the woman whom his cruelty had killed. Oh, he could not deny it or hide it from himself, it was true: he knew it by the tumult of his mind in which those years had passed, by that iron intensity of feeling growing into hardness round his heart as message after message arrived, entreating him to come… He knew vaguely of sick frenzied longing, of despair torturing almost to madness, of a ceaseless craving for the presence he had so continually denied. Through all those years he had thought only of the anguish of that mistaken love, for which he scorned himself, and of her scorn for him, it had seemed to him that he could not strike too hard to punish her for that. And he had struck—and she was a woman, and had died.
In the wake of the deepening misery of the resolution of its main plot, Leap Year does allow itself a little light. It is presently revealed that, very late, Minna made a will, in it bequeathing everything of which she died possessed – namely, Uncle Sarby’s fortune – to Amy. But although this gesture relieves the girl from ever having to work again, and gives her the power to change her family’s life, it only increases the distance between her and what she wants most. Amy with fifty thousand pounds is no less barred to Frank than Amy penniless; and they are, it seems, about to be parted forever when Amy suddenly realises what day it is, and what year: Valentine’s Day, Leap Year:
Oh, what was it that was between them, a nothing, a conventionality—was there no escaping then from that? And, yet, if she were wrong, if he did not wish it?—Oh, God, help her! She could not bear this—this silence… It was worth the risk.
“There is one thing I would like to ask you before you go.”
Frank looked at her, but answered neither by word or movement; he was fearing every instant that the trembling would commence again. Her dark eyes met his with a directness that was not usual with her; her hands were tightly clasped, but her words came distinctly, and she rather turned pale than blushed.
“Frank, will you marry me?”
It turns out that the profound shock and horror that Frank experiences at the thought of a woman proposing to a man depends upon who the woman is—and who the man.
In the end, perhaps the most curious thing about this very curious novel is that the story of Frank and Amy does so little to lighten its tone. The struggles and coming together of these two well-intentioned if flawed young people ought, by most rules of novel-writing, counterbalance the mutually destructive relationship of Minna and her husband, but the truth is that their story seems muted, and their characters ineffectual, in comparison, with even the final irony of Uncle Sarby’s fortune ending up where he least wished it to providing only a momentary relief. What stays with us is not the union of Frank and Amy, but our final glimpse of Lord Farnim, a solitary figure permanently self-exiled from Landene, aware too late that his fatal blow has rebounded upon himself:
There is a haunting sense of her about the place, and about the rooms in which few footfalls can be heard, though her name is not inscribed on the family monument, and though her loveliness finds no place amongst the portraits on the walls. Deserted, disowned, there is yet no one who comes to take her place, and the home in which she was so hardly permitted to spend her lonely years is left…to lie in deeper silence now. For Lord Farnim has not returned to it again…