It was so strange! queer—a few words had been pattered over by a fat old gentleman in a gown; and, lo! all their relations were changed. It was curious; her very name and title were gone, and the girl, two minutes since a wild, free maiden, was now little better than a bondwoman; and the gentle youth who two minutes since might have sued humbly to raise the tips of her little dark fingers to his lips, was now invested with a life-long authority over her. Yes, it was so curious! and the spirited girl was in doubt whether to laugh or cry; and the expression of mingled emotions on her face blended into one of intense interest and inquiry as she met his gaze and smile, which she could not help fancying patronizing and condescending, as well as protective and loving! A new, extremely provoking feature in his smile! but perhaps she only fancied it…
From the beginning of her acquaintance with Withers, Sophie is haunted by a strange, spectral figure: a woman, pale and gaunt, with long, fair hair, who appears from nowhere, lurking at the edge of the surrounding forest and by the road. At the figure’s first appearance it points towards Withers, uttering the words Shun him! in a voice that only Sophie can hear…
On the evening of Sophie’s capitulation to Mrs Gardiner Green, on which her doom—her wedding-day—is fixed, the figure appears again:
She looked up, and the phantom of the forest dell stood before her, the same wan, spectral face—the same large, intense, blue eyes, blazing in their hollow sockets, surrounded by their livid, blueish circle—the same streaming yellow hair, with its streaks of grey—the same emaciated claw-like fingers. Her intense gaze sought into Sophie’s eyes, and she knew that her visitor was a denizen of earth. She remained gazing into Sophie’s eyes a minute, and then she broke forth with terrible energy:
“Do not marry him!—risk—suffer anything but that. Do not marry him! Be true to your instincts—they warned you at your first meeting, they warn you now! Be true to your instincts! They were given to you of God for your protection; it is a sin—it is a sin to disregard them, and the punishment will be more than you can bear!—a broken heart!—a maddened brain!—at least—a blighted life! Look at me!”
She tore the mantle from her breast and displayed a skeleton form, to which the tight skin clung.
“Who are you, in the name of Heaven?”
“I am a shadow—a memory—a warning! I was his wife!”
With Withers’ appearance on the scene the spectre vanishes into the shadows, and is next seen a pathetic corpse, found floating in the bay. At the inquest, Sophie—clinging to the thought that Withers has always spoken of losing his first wife, never that his wife died—gathers together the last remnants of her strength and courage and testifies, telling all she knows of the dead woman. This compels Withers to respond. He testifies that he did know the woman, had known her all her life; that for the past year she was an inmate of a lunatic asylum, from where she escaped; but swears solemnly that she was not his wife. His word is taken, and the inquest closed.
With that, Sophie gives up her faint struggle for freedom, and goes to her marriage as to her execution.
After the ceremony, Sophie is summoned from the house by an unexpected arrival. At first glance she thinks that the suicide has returned to haunt her literally—the fair hair, the blue eyes, are the same—but the visitor is a young man, hardly more than a boy. His name is Frank Raymond Withers, and he has come to warn Sophie not to marry his father, because his father is insane…
A reeling Sophie then hears of the fits which gradually consumed the intellect of John Withers, causing him shame as well as terror, but which with the help of his son, he managed to conceal from the world; and of his marriage to Fanny Raymond—so much for the word of honour of a man of God—although when the boy is asked about his mother’s fate, he recoils. Raymond – so the boy is called – tells Sophie that she can have her marriage annulled, but upon being pressed, agrees that this would make Withers’ malady public knowledge and, in all likelihood, cost him his tenuous grip on his sanity.
Absorbing this story, Sophie—who has repeatedly been described to us as visionary, as seeking a higher calling—does not, as we might expect and even hope, flee her husband. Instead, she goes to the other extreme:
During the interview, a revolution had taken place in Sophie’s soul; all her deep religious feeling, her latent passion for self-devotion, her enthusiasm, her benevolence, had been called forth. Thus softened by pity, and inspired by her own lofty ideal of duty, she determined to devote herself to the tranquility of his shrunken and tortured life, with one purpose—his restoration to mental and physical health… An hour before, she had seemed a trembling, shrinking, suffering victim, offered in useless, objectless sacrifice; now she was a cheerful, self-possessed human soul, who had solved the problem of her life, and held the answer in her hands.
Intriguingly, from the first Sophie’s willing self-immolation is presented to us in ambiguous terms. Southworth starts out musing on the impulse of self-sacrifice, and the great works so achieved by noble souls—and then drifts into a reflection of the nature of fanaticism, and the damage that can be caused by enthusiasm unchecked by reason. So, we are to understand, is Sophie’s devotion to her husband, a duty which she pursues while neglecting all other duties.
And with this, the focus of The Deserted Wife begins to shift from Sophie to the most important duty she is neglecting: the child Hagar, who in a stroke of fate goes from being Sophie’s constant companion and the cynosure of her life, to a mere afterthought, neglected and ignored; something underfoot, and generally in the way.
Here, too, this novel takes on an ambivalent tone that will persist throughout its remaining pages. The positioning of Hagar as Southworth’s alter-ego could not be more nakedly evident as she struggles to aportion blame: constantly, bitterly critical of the girl for her inability to control her passions—her anger, her resentment, her jealousy—yet time and again, almost involuntarily, it seems, tracing her faults back to this moment in her childhood when Hagar is simply pushed aside.
Sophie had fallen into that dangerous error so common to enthusiasts—the exclusive absorption in one duty, to the neglect of others… Even religion, piety, which is most excellent, stretched beyond the line of moderation becomes fanaticism, superstition—which is anything but worship and honour to the Creator. For Scripture saith, “Be not righteous over much.” Poor Sophie was “over much,” and hence her self-sacrifice was not, as it might have been, productive of unmingled good. To Hagar it brought great evil…
From Hagar’s point of view, worse is to come than even her abrupt relegation in her aunt’s priorities. Word is received that Sophie’s sister and brother-in-law have fallen victim to a fever epidemic in Baltimore, and so Sophie finds herself guardian to her second niece, Rosalia, orphaned at the age of three. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, gentle and timid, wanting only to love and be loved, Rosalia is everything that Hagar is not. The older girl’s resentment manifests as contempt, while Rosalia conceives a fear of Hagar which she never quite gets over.
Rosalia’s arrival brings Hagar into temporary alliance with Withers—the two are otherwise mutually antagonistic. In her fair loveliness, Rosalia seems to Withers’ disordered gaze the unfortunate Fanny Raymond reincarnated, and he must be petted and soothed into acceptance of the girl by Sophie. However, everyone else in the household takes the beautiful child to their hearts in an instant—and before much time has passed, Hagar finds herself being told repeatedly that she will never be pretty like Rosalia, but she could at least try to be good like her.
And then they’re surprised that Hagar goes through life with a permanent scowl on her face, while behaving as badly as possible.
Upon Hagar, too, these influences were producing the worst effects. Jealousy and suspicion of the few she loved, scorn and contempt for the opinions of others—neglect of her person as little worth attention, and a morbid desire to be loved exclusively—these were some of the evil fruits of her wretched bringing-up…
The one consolation in Hagar’s life are those times when Raymond Withers is a member of the household, in between his college terms. The two become acquainted on the night of the wedding, when Hagar—in a fore-taste of things to come—is sitting by herself, the sole child amongst a crowd of indifferent adults. Raymond is drawn to the lonely little girl, plying her with cakes and sweetmeats while he investigates the source of her evident grief; and from the moment of this first encounter, he becomes the object of Hagar’s passionate devotion, her adopted brother:
“She used to keep me always by her side, or on her lap; for two or three days she has left me here with Mrs May, and now that she has come, she scarcely speaks to me!” exclaimed the child, and her black eyes flashed under her sharp brows, and her white teeth gleamed under her up-turned lip as she spoke.
A soft smile hovered an instant around the beautiful lips and under the golden eye-lashes of the youth as he said—“You look so like a little playful, spiteful black kitten, that I am almost afraid of your teeth and claws—however—” and stooping down he daintily lifted the child and set her on his lap. Then he said, “I think you are a jealous little girl.”
“I don’t know what ‘jealous’ is, but I don’t like to be robbed of what is mine.”
“You are selfish, I am afraid, my little one—who has robbed you?”
“Mr Withers has got Sophie, and now he may have her, for I don’t care…”
In his time in the household of his father and step-mother, Raymond does indeed share with Sophie the care of Withers, and the job of concealing his illness from the community. It is no easy task, and becomes still less so as Withers’ malady grows upon him, and his fits, for the first time, threaten violence. Raymond, more familiar with the phases of his father’s illness than Sophie, becomes worried that she will no longer be able to soothe and calm him; that in fact, he poses a genuine threat to her. Finally, Raymond tells Sophie that they must think of a retreat for her, some place where she will be safe. Withers overhears—and, in his madness, misunderstands; his response is to seize Raymond by the throat…
E.D.E.N. Southworth was, as we have seen, an enormously successful and popular novelist; and the more I see of her writing, the more I’m inclined to think that the basis for her appeal may have been willingness to break taboos—to speak of unspeakable things, both in a broad, social sense and more intimately, domestically—using the unrealistic mask of the sensation novel as an excuse. In any event, critics of the time, some admiring, some horrified, were quick to single out this scene of familial violence, which we may say put Southworth on the map as a novelist:
“Perfidous son of a perfidous mother!” he exclaimed, shaking him violently, “her image in heart and mind, as well as in person—traitor and reprobate! would you wile the love of my bride away from me? would you teach her your vile mother’s sin?”
The youth was but as a reed in his grasp. Sophie sank pale and helpless into a chair. Now another figure appeared upon the scene—little Hagar stamping and screaming.
“Let Raymond! let my brother alone! Let him go, I say! you old Satan, you. I—I’ll kill you—I’ll scratch your eyes out,” and clambering upon a chair, and then a table, she sprang upon the back of his neck. He was obliged to drop his hold of Raymond a moment to shake off the little wild-cat—he seized her, and pulling her off, hurled her flying through the open window…
Fortunately, this occurs on the ground floor…
The young Jane Eyre is probably the 19th century’s most famous poster child for violence and wilfulness, but she meets her match in Hagar—each of the girls both suffering and inflicting physical abuse. It is disturbing, although not, I suppose, altogether surprising that these twin shatterers of 19th century childhood myths should both be self-portraits by their creators.
(There’s an evil part of me that would love to give Jane and Hagar ten minutes alone in a room with Little Nell and the young Florence Dombey…)
This outbreak of violence on the part of John Withers represents the peak of his illness. From this point, he retreats into long periods of morose silence, and his general health begins gradually to fail. With the slow approach of death, ironically his mind clears. A new gentleness, and a deep remorse, are evident. Almost at the last, Withers steels himself for the task of confessing the entire truth about Fanny Raymond: a subject that, once recognising that this, above all else, would precipitate an attack—that it was Raymond’s resemblance to his mother that triggered Withers’ assault of his son—Sophie has scrupulously avoided. We hear of Withers’ reluctant embrace of the church, to which he was recociled by the adulation his impassioned sermons won him; of his introduction to the young Fanny, beautiful only child of an elderly father; and of the twisted nature of their relationship (in describing which, Southworth struggles, as she did in Retribution, with the necessity of saying “love” when she means “sex”):
“I wooed Fanny Raymond—did I love her? No; but her extreme youth, her beauty and graceful shyness strongly attracted me—through that idiosyncrasy that lured me to the pursuit of such. I wooed her, but she avoided me. That added zest to the chase. I had her father’s interest, and I married her. I married her, despite her reluctance, or rather because of her reluctance, and despite of tears, prayers and resistance… The wild shy creature, full of emotion as a harp is of music, was in my power—in my grasp. Oh! the wild beating of my heart, when I had caught and held the fluttering bird! Did I love her now? Yes! as the fire loves the fuel it consumes. And then she loved me, Sophie! or rather no, I will not profane the word that expresses your pure affection for me, Sophie. But she grew passionately, insanely fond of me—she loved me as the drunkard loves the bowl he feels is his destruction—as the moth loves the flame that must consume it. And then, Sophie! then, she lost all attractions for me! From indifference I grew almost to loath her. I struggled against this growing disgust, but it overmastered me…”
Unhappiness—estrangement—and finally, infidelity, betrayal and madness, as Fanny’s slighted and banked up passions finally break out in another direction, attaching to yet another unworthy object and precipitating disaster. As Withers succumbs to his first fit, Fanny flees the house. The young Raymond nurses his father back to comprehension, and is then sent in pursuit of his mother, who he eventually locates in a lunatic asylum; while a recovering Withers is left to confront a parish that knows every detail of his domestic disgrace. His fits return, periodically, and it is Raymond who bears the brunt, caring for his father and defending his secret against prying eyes. In one of his fits, Withers strikes Raymond a vicious blow, which injures his chest and leaves him with impaired health and permanent damage to his lungs.
Withers does at last recover – or at least, the fits became more infrequent – until Raymond feels secure enough to give in to his father’s prompting and return to his neglected education. At this time Withers resumes his correspondence with an old friend, Mr May, who has seen the notice of his resignation from the pulpit—which Withers attributes to grief over “the loss of my wife”. And from this correspondence springs the offer of a new parish, upon the death of Mr May…and Withers’ meeting with Sophie…and the reappearance and death of Fanny…
Changes have come to the quiet valley over the years of Sophie’s marriage, and her widowhood. The children have, perforce, grown up. Gusty May is preparing for a career in the navy, under the patronage of his uncle, which frees his mother to at long last become Mrs Buncombe. Rosalia is away at school in Baltimore, and Hagar—is Hagar.
Having contracted, in her lonely childhood, solitary habits, as a young woman Hagar scandalises the neighbourhood with her reckless habits and her indifference to public opinion. She is an intrepid horsewoman, a crack shot, an expert archer and an enthusiastic hunter, and can handle a boat with skill and ease; her overflowing emotions find an outlet in her devotion to her horse and her dogs, who are her constant companions in her wanderings. Hagar is, it almost goes without saying, an object of horror to the painfully conventional Emily Buncombe—and all the more so because Gusty, Hagar’s childhood friend, is rather obstinately in love with her, in spite of his mother’s limitless objections – and her fear of what the neighbours will say:
“I have a worse fear for you than that, Gusty, a far worse fear for you than that. This Hagar, she is the talk of the whole neighbourhood; her eccentricity, her improprieties, expose her to severe animadversions.”
“Her originality you mean; her independence; her free, strong, glorious spirit! Oh! Hagar is a chamois! you cannot expect her to trot demurely to the music of her own grunting, from trough to straw, like any pig! Hagar is an eagle! you must not look to find her waddling lazily and feeding fatly with barnyard ducks and geese.”
“A pretty way to speak of your neighbours, Mr May.”
“Well, then, let them leave Hagar alone!”
Hagar’s affection for Gusty is real enough, but thoroughly sisterly, and she holds him at a determined distance. For Hagar’s heart is gone, long gone; given to Raymond without hesitation—yet not without a qualm. The two of them become engaged, are so for some time. For all Hagar’s love for Raymond, some instinct makes her shrink from taking the final, fatal step. There is, at last, a final tussle of two strong wills – and in spite of the text’s insistence upon Raymond’s “gentleness”, of which we hear from his first appearance, there is no doubt of the steel behind it. Since completing his education, Raymond has been building a career for himself, and now he tells Hagar that he has been offered an appointment at the Court of Madrid—which he will accept if she does not agree to an immediate marriage. Still the battle goes on, Raymond insisting and Hagar resisting. They part—he goes—but before he can get any further than New York, a letter calls him back…
Hagar’s marriage has consequences for people other than herself and Raymond. Poor Gusty, in his desolation and in his need for someone to love, makes a fool of himself by asking Sophie to marry him (she is, as he points out, only eight years older than himself), and is refused with both tact and affection. Gusty is then sent away, under the guise of making himself useful, to fetch Rosalia from Baltimore so that she can attend the wedding; and by the time the two appear – having travelled by land rather than water, due to Rosalia’s terrors – Gusty’s pliable affections have taken yet another turn—and this time, they stick.
Meanwhile, word comes that Emily Buncombe is expecting a visit from her brother. The first meeting between Augustus and Sophie is awkward in the extreme, full of “Captain Wilde” and Mrs Withers” – until an involuntary shower of tears from Sophie finds her in her lover’s arms and, his leave being brief, agreeing to an immediate marriage on the single condition that when they depart, Rosalia goes with them—the alternative being to leave her with Hagar:
“Hagar is dangerous to one so tender as Rosalia. Would you put a dove in the guardianship of a young eagle? Hagar has a fine, high spirit—she would go through fire or flood to serve one she loved—but, mark you! she would cast that one she loved back into the fire or flood if they should offend her.”
As for Hagar, she watches from a distance the effect of Rosalia: Sophie’s rapturous greeting of the girl, and Captain Wilde’s unconcealed admiration; that Gusty, such a short time ago at her own feet, is utterly entranced by her; and that Raymond gazes upon her with the eyes of a connoisseur – and perhaps something more. The demon jealousy is awake in an instant, precipitating a skirmish between Hagar and her husband, a battle of the wills that is a disturbing portent of worse to come…
It is, perversely, Raymond’s very gentleness that frightens his wife; his command over himself, which gives him a strange power over her. She recognises this, although she has no way of combatting it. Her passions are all fire and tempest; his, ice and steel behind a face like a mask—at least in front of outsiders. Raymond is an immovable object against which Hagar’s force proves anything but irresistable, but instead batters itself into helpless submission:
She stopped short, and gazed in surprise at him. How changed his aspect! was it the same Raymond that an hour ago was smiling, bowing, glancing, gliding through the lighted drawing-rooms? He stood with folded arms and curling lip; his cold eye crawling over her from head to foot, yet so fascinating in his beautiful scorn, that she could have uttered a death-cry of anguish, as love and pride tugged at her…
We might be inclined to think, during the early stages of this nove , that John Withers’ obsession with pursuing women who do not want him, are in fact frightened of him, is a manifestation of his insanity—until the text takes pains to tell us otherwise. And here we find Raymond pursuing the same course—Raymond, whose father’s malady is explicitly characterised as not hereditary—the eminently sane Raymond—marrying a woman with the declared intention (declared after the event, of course, not before) of dominating her will and compelling her to submit and obey. In fact, Raymond goes his father one better by choosing a woman not weak and gentle, but passionate and wilful: a woman whose spirit is fully worth a man’s trouble in breaking it:
“Come, come!—come, come! be still, Hagar, no phrensy,” said he, smilingly, tauntingly caressing her, while a gentle, cruel strength struck out from the pressure of the soft arms that held her in a fast embrace; “if your eagle flaps its wings and beats its cage so violently, I am afraid clipping its pinions and claws will not be enough—I am afraid I will have to crush it altogether,” said he, looking down into her eyes.
She ceased to struggle, and letting fall her hands clasped upon her lap—dropped her head upon her chest, while the colour all faded from her cheeks, and the light from her eyes.
“Come, love, you are a spirited little thing, but you will be docile by and by…”
[To be continued…]