Then, suddenly subdued, and looking at her with a cold and curious smile— “After all, you have done well enough for yourself,” he said. “And you may comfort yourself with thinking that if you have to blame me, at any rate you have punished me enough. You will have my name, my house, my money. I will see that you have everything you need. If I cannot bear to be near you, at least I will do as much for you as that. And I—” And here he paused.
“I shall have no wife, no home, if it please God, no child either, to bear my name, and look with your eyes at me— And I have lived three months with you—and I have loved you—surely that ought to be enough—
“I loved you once—I know you better now.”
Despite their lack of background, Minna Franse and her father manage to establish themselves in London society, the latter through elaborate dinners and entertainments at which his beautiful daughter is a great attraction. But there is a dark secret behind this seeming success, and all is revealed when a young man shoots himself in the Franses’ house. At the inquest, a former secretary of Franse, eager to distance himself, paints an ugly picture of the life of father and daughter: of secret gambling; of fortunes changing hands, not always honestly; of men lured to their ruin; and of Minna as her father’s willing accomplice, luring young men into her father’s clutches. Noel Franse does not wait for the verdict of the inquest, but departs England secretly in the night, leaving his daughter to face disgrace and ostracism on her own.
Reluctantly taken into the house of an old acquaintance of her father’s, Minna passes the time desolate and neglected, shunned by her former friends and suitors. Finally, in cold desperation, she thinks back not so many months before, to when the young Viscount Farnim had laid his heart and title at her feet. At the height of her succcess amidst a surfeit of admiration, and a little frightened by the passionate intensity of this otherwise quiet and sober young man, Minna had temporised, insisting that they wait a year to be sure of his feelings. Lord Farnim had accepted this, but made at the same time a solemn promise: That at any time in all her life, or under any circumstances, she had only to say a word and he would be ready to marry her at once.
And upon this day, St Valentine’s Day, Leap Year—Minna Franse, now an outcast, writes to Lord Farnim, demanding that he keep his promise to her. And just over two weeks later, on the 29th of February, he does.
In the few days between her engagement and her wedding, it becomes very evident to Minna that Lord Farnim’s love for her has changed. The intensity that frightened her has gone. However, he is quiet and respectful towards her, and evinces a determination to get the marriage arranged as swiftly as possible. A new fear grows in Minna, but she tells herself that once they are married, she will be able to win him back. After the private wedding, the two depart for Europe, where they spend three months travelling. It is a beautiful late spring when Lord Farnim escorts his bride to Landene, his country estate. Having settled her in her comfortable suite, he then confronts her, telling her that the farce is over: that she may have what she married for, his title, his estate, the protection of his name; but that he cannot and will not live with her; that three months have told him all the truth about her.
And the next morning, Lady Farnim is a deserted wife. On an invented plea of urgent business, Lord Farnim departs. At first incredulous, Minna clutches at the idea that he will return, that he must return; but he does not. Left with the address of her husband’s lawyer, Minna begs him for information about Lord Farnim’s whereabouts and intentions. She receives a chillingly formal reply from Mr Grimson assuring her that she will have everything she needs in terms of money, but adding that it is Lord Farnim’s intention to remain abroad until business matters compel him to return, which will not be for nearly another four years.
Forced to face her situation, Minna begins to contemplate how to conduct herself, so as to present herself first as a wife patiently awaiting her husband’s return, and later, inevitably, as the injured party—and how to attract as little gossip as possible in her anomalous situation. Her first act is to write to Grimson about the hiring of a companion. In the same letter, she mentions that Lord Farnim’s agent left the estate some months earlier, and that a new man is needed in his place.
This single letter is to alter forever the lives of the two people brought to share Lady Farnim’s strange fate. Amy Merse, at eighteen the oldest child of a family of twelve, has spent a weary life of poverty and labour, with long hours devoted to household drudgery and the instruction of her siblings; and she is guiltily thrilled when the prospect of a life of luxury and comparative ease is offered to her. Meanwhile, a thoughtless prank sends Frank Mannion, the only son of an impoverished vicar, to Landene in the belief that his distant relative, Lord Farnim, has offered him a position. To his mortification, he finds that the position of agent has already been filled by the gruff, middle-aged Mr Bortop, a life-long tenant of Lord Farnim’s. However, a compromised is reached, with Frank offered a junior position and the opportunity to learn the skills of an agent—in reality undertaking all the stenuous tasks that the crusty Bortop would rather not bother with.
At first accepting the situation at face-value, as the truth about Lord Farnim’s extended absence emerges both Frank and Amy hesitate over what is their correct course of action. The innocent Amy, in particular, is inexpressibly shocked at the thought that Minna is a deserted wife, and tells herself that she must leave at once—but between her involuntary affection for Minna and the contrast she cannot help making between the comforts of Landene and the deprivations of home, day by day she puts it off. Frank, meanwhile, is held equally by Minna’s tantalising beauty and a rash promise that he will always be her friend. And so the pair of them stay, against their judgement and almost against their will, as outside, the talk grows ever louder…
As for Minna, as the days and weeks slip by, as she fights to maintain her position in the face of disapproval and gossip, she finds herself clinging ever more desperately to the knowledge that at a fixed time, Lord Farnim will, must return—and then to the belief, a belief that is to become a dangerous obsession, that all will be well if only she can hold on until that time—that next Leap Year…
Although Margaret Anne Curtois predominantly wrote stories for girls and young women, her 1885 novel Leap Year is inarguably a book for adults. It is also a very strange book; a book I’m tempted to call unVictorian—except that if this course of reading has taught us anything, it’s that the “typical” Victorian novel is a much rarer entity, and one more difficult to define, than we may have previously imagined. Among this work’s many unVictorian characteristics is the fact that, for the most part, it refrains from overt moral judgements, contenting itself instead with presenting us with its characters’ actions and leaving us to draw our own inferences; yet such is the nature of this book that we have no particular confidence that our inferences are the correct ones.
I have found Leap Year a very difficult book to come to grips with. Its lack of forward momentum, the central limbo which Minna occupies and into which Frank and Amy are drawn, negates the usual this happens and then that happens approach, because by and large things don’t “happen” here at all. Our three focal characters are simply marking time, while what “action” this novel contains takes place on the periphery, and sometimes out of sight entirely. Nor do we have the simple option of “good” characters and “bad” characters: even where she condemns, Curtois leavens, and even where she encourages us to sympathise, she shows us spots and stains. In the end, all we can say for certain about Leap Year is that it is a book with neither a hero nor a heroine; and that it divides its time between a examination of unhappy people suffering the consequences of their own actions, and a consideration of the gap that exists between human theory and human practice; a gap that, when comparing an ideally conceived view of life to day-to-day reality, can be recognised as a yawning chasm.
The nature of this novel is best summed up in Minna herself, who is a strikingly odd character. We are used to a beautiful face reflecting a beautiful soul, and to the reverse; but it is not often in the literature of this era in particular that we come across a beautiful face masking a nature that is simply inadequate. Minna is not actively evil, nor without a conscience of a kind; but she is crudely constructed. Her intelligence is limited, and she lacks the capacity to envisage what the long-term consequences of her actions might be, both for herself and for others. This limitation of her nature is both protection and punishment: it keeps her from ever being seriously hurt, as a finer nature would be; but it prevents any spiritual growth:
Nevertheless, it was with the plans and the future of herself and her father that her mind was occupied still, and recent horrors had not touched her with any influence strong enough to disturb her reflections as she thought. Oh! it is in vain that we imagine that actions need have no abiding influence upon souls, that we soothe ourselves with the generosity of thieves, and exercise ourselves upon the heroism of highwaymem. Such things do exist sometimes, indeed, because from above there come the diviner impulses that will not allow any of us to stifle ourselves utterly beneath our sins; but yet in spite of them—in spite of interesting villains and sentimental swindlers—it is just as suitable to expect to see unbent the shoulders of a man who has borne a crushing weight through years of toil…as it is to hope that the hearts of the rebel and the schemer will not be in themselves rebellious and sordid, too, fierce with the ungoverned impulses that have known no restraining power, petty with the narrow hopes that no higher objects or desires have reached. Pent in cunning devices, narrowed to selfish cares—there are such souls on earth.
And it is useless hoping—as we all hope sometimes—that a great event will have in itself the power to make us different to ourselves, it is not in that easy manner that we can meet the crises of our lives. Death, sudden temptation, a sudden opportunity, are not in themselves instructors, they find us what our lives have made us, and our characters will not contradict themselves for us.
This ominous passage, coming early in the novel in the wake of the young man’s suicide, throws a shadow across the subsequent events of Leap Year. The shock of the death, and the manner of it, does not, cannot, alter Minna’s nature in any fundamental way: she lacks the raw material by which a crisis might bring about change. Rather, the suicide acts like a large rock thrown into a pond: there is an initial upheaval, and then a series of ripples—but in time, the ripples subside, and there is no evidence that rock was ever thrown. It is not her culpability in the suicide that worries Minna, but merely that it has brought to light things better kept hidden.
Yet in this situation, where we might expect a Victorian novelist to have a moral field-day, Margaret Curtois chooses unexpectedly to resort to irony rather than judgement. It is presently revealed that the Franses were not actually responsible for the young suicide’s ruin at all. Addicted to gambling, he had gone from den to den, getting deeper and deeper into debt at each step; his losses at Noel Franse’s tables were only a drop in the ocean—but they were also (excuse the mixed metaphor) the straw that broke the camel’s back. The realisation that this final loss, and the resulting suicide, could have happened anywhere is for Noel Franse cause for exasperation:
Before, however, their verdict of ‘suicide’ and of a ‘disordered mind’ could be expressed, Noel Franse had ecaped from the place, and was already on his way from the city and the land where he had lived. The game was over and he knew it; and the acuteness that had supported him so long served only to give him a deeper insight into his ruin. It mattered little, as he knew, that his own share in the final tragedy had not indeed been great, the blame of it would none the less be laid on him; he had been openly denounced as an unprincipled adventurer, living on the young men whom he enticed to their destruction… In any case his position in society was gone, by various actions he had brought himself within the compass of the law, and now that his own secretary had turned against him, the worst of consequences might be feared. And all this on account of an event…that might easily have occurred within other doors than his own!
In the wake of Noel Franse’s abscondence, which wins for Minna a measure of public sympathy if not forgiveness, it is revealed to the reader that the separation was an agreed thing between father and daughter: that each of them recognised that henceforward they would do better apart. Finding a refuge, Minna tries to ride out the storm, trusting to her youth, sex and beauty to carry her over this stretch of rocky ground; but before many months have passed, she is forced ro accept that the stain upon her character is permanent, and that she will never regain her position—at least, not alone.
We are given a brief sketch of Lord Farnim’s courtship of Minna, her rejection of him based upon a strange mingling of her arrogant confidence in her own powers of attraction, her dim recognition of the depth and complexity young nobleman’s nature, and her fear of his passion, so alien to her own shallow nature: The tall young man in dark gray by her side, looking down on her with a quiet modest manner and a longing like madness in his eyes. Her instinctive recoil is justified when Lord Farnim responds to her rejection of his proposal by making the promise that some months later will compel him to be Minna’s deliverer—a promise written literally in his own blood. In what seems like an act of generosity, but which again is inspired by fear, Minna destroys this extraordinary declaration; and when her desperation finally drives her to demand that Lord Farnim keep his oath to her, it is with some doubt in her heart whether the giving of his word will be enough to bring him back to her, in the absence of written proof.
It does; and after the briefest of engagements, in which through Minna’s confused eyes we see Lord Farnim as a man rushing upon his fate, the two are married. Our next view of them is upon their return to England after their honeymoon, an interlude obliquely sketched, but clearly fraught with discomfort and disappointment. Even so, we are hardly prepared for Lord Farnim’s comprehensive and bitterly scornful rejection of his bride. Carried through his engagement by the desperate hope that she is in reality the girl he thought he loved, not the girl of the newspaper headlines, weeks, days are enough to open the new husband’s eyes. Although during his courtship of her, Minna managed to disguise herself from him, in her triumph and relief after marriage she does not bother—and in revulsion, Lord Farnim flees from what he finds behind her beautiful face; or rather, from what he does not find.
At first this blow is too much even for Minna:
She was all false, he did not love her, no man could care for her. The scourged soul, writhing under the deeper insight that had come with another’s words, had no power to hide itself within the darkness now, the light falling upon its smallness and its bareness had found it and had judged it.
Typically of Minna, however, her remorse is transient; and the morning after her dark night of the soul finds her on her feet and considering how to conduct herself so that Lord Farnim’s actions will do her the least damage possible—partly out of necessity, her instinct for survival kicking in, but partly also to punish her husband. She will punish him by not being beaten—and she will fight back because it is all that she knows how to do:
These hours of rest in spite of all that had gone were golden times to her. And yet she was not entirely idle, it was not in her nature to let the present moment pass and lose the fruit that only then perhaps it might be possible to gain. Already with reviving strength came hopes and plans again: the soul of the schemer, crushed and desolate with failure, has no resource but to turn its crushed failing hopes with such strength as it may have left back to its schemes once more. It was so then with her.
[To be continued…]