The Old Engagement


    “And you have not seen him from that period till now?” I asked.
    “No, not once,” she said.
    “And how very extraordinary it is that they should at last have met, and quite accidentally, too,” observed Mrs Grove.
    “It is indeed most remarkable,” said I; “and one cannot help believing that important results to them both will be the consequence of it.”
    “I sometimes suspect that it will only end in our complete and final separation,” said Miss Vaughan.
    “It will be your own fault if it should do so, I am persuaded,” I replied.
    “As far as I am concerned,” she answered, “events must take their course, there must be no endeavour on my part to renew a tie which was broken by himself.”







Some {*cough*} time ago, Random Reading plucked from my lists an obscure novel from 1858, The Gilberts And Their Guests. Though billing itself as “A Story Of Homely English Life”, this novel is striking for its undertones of rebellion, touching upon such topics as—well, allow me to quote myself:

…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.

The author of this unexpected piece of writing was Julia Day, and it was, as it turned out, her second and final novel: you have to wonder whether critical disapproval might not have dissuaded her from continuing in this new form of expression. Day was primarily a poet, whose verses may be found online for those interested. Of information about the lady herself, I can offer nothing more.

Day’s first novel, The Old Engagement: A Spinster’s Story, was published in 1851—and frankly I found it something of a disappointment. It is an altogether more conventional work, despite its tacit support for a woman’s right to singledom; and it lacks the sharp note of protest that marks its successor. There isn’t much plot to speak of here: the novel is set in a country area, with a background of visits, teas, dinners and dances involving more or less the same people. In between times the characters, in particular the three mature women at its heart, exchange views on marriage, the relations between the sexes and women’s lives in general, among other topics.

Yet despite this novel’s subtitle, and for all this airing of opinions, we never really seem to get inside the heads of, in particular, Miss Brooke and Miss Vaughan, the novel’s two spinsters, to see what motivated their choices. A sense of distance is maintained that progressively becomes frustrating.

This is not to say that The Old Engagement is not an enjoyable read: it still has Day’s rather acerbic wit to recommend it; but it is in all respects a lesser work than The Gilberts And Their Guests.

On the other hand, this should add up to a single short(-ish) post—which is good news for all of us.

The Old Engagement is narrated by Miss Brooke, a settled spinster in her forties (or perhaps a bit more). She does not begin by introducing herself, but rather her friend, Miss Anne Vaughan: a decade or so younger than she and also a spinster, though in her case less from choice than from circumstance:

She was not handsome, she was not young, she was not rich, she was not accomplished; she was simply Miss Vaughan, whom you could not look at without being sure that it was by her own choice she was Miss Vaughan, whom you could not converse with without feeling interested to know how it chanced that she continued to be Miss Vaughan, whom you could not think of without hoping that she would not always remain Miss Vaughan. There was an indescribable charm in her companionship that spontaneously gave rise to these thoughts; and yet, perhaps, her solitude was made cheerful by the very spirit that gave grace and animation to her manner in society, and which I am inclined to believe sprang from a contented mind, and if so there was no lack of wisdom in her perseverance in a life of singleness…

And having introduced her, Miss Brooke then makes the following revelation with a casualness both shocking and funny:

Admirers she had had in abundance, and twice she had been on the point of marriage; on one of these occasions the projected event had been broken off by the almost sudden death of the gentleman to whom she was engaged, on the other by her accidental discovery that the individual with whose fate she was about to unite her own, had been only a few months before the inmate of a lunatic asylum…

Miss Vaughan also has two current suitors, though neither is a particularly viable prospect: one is “a contemporary of her late father”, the other, conversely, a student “whose years certainly numbered not half her own”. Neither puts in an appearance.

Miss Brooke goes to stay with her friends, Dr and Mrs Grove, and discovers to her pleasure that Miss Vaughan will be there at the same time.

The Groves are the novel’s positive face of marriage. Mrs Grove is a devoted and happy wife and mother, who enjoys and takes pride in her housekeeping, and whose own happiness makes her inclined to push when it comes to her single friends.

Just the same, when she learns that Dr Grove has not merely invited an old friend, a Colonel Lawrence Estcourt, to dinner, but to stay with them for a week or two, her reaction is dismay:

    “Oh!” almost shrieked Mrs Grove, “what can be done! Edward, how could you be so injudicious?… I am thinking of Miss Vaughan.”
    “Well, my love, I can discern nothing alarming in that; you have a very pleasant subject for your thoughts; I think of Miss Vaughan a good deal myself too, sometimes.”
    “You could not have thought of her when you invited Colonel Estcourt.”
    “And why not? ” asked Doctor Grove, looking fairly puzzled.
    “Have you forgotten that there was an engagement between them, which was broken off?”

Miss Vaughan gets around.

Dr Grove admits he has no idea whether his old friend is now married or single; and he reacts with scepticism to his wife’s flustered insistence that Miss Vaughan has never gotten over this early affair—going so far as to cite all the evidence to the contrary. We then hear briefly about “poor Lacy”, who was “so long and so deeply attached to her” (presumably he’s the one who died); but for Anne’s “acceptance of Mr Conway, after a short acquaintance” (in between periods of confinement!), Mrs Grove has no explanation.

There is then a brief dispute on the subject of the broken engagement, each of the Groves taking the side of their own friend: Mrs Grove accuses Estcourt of “drawing in” Anne, then breaking with her when his family objected; Dr Grove counters that they were both too young, and the gentleman younger than the lady; and that whatever was done, he is sure it was for good reason and in an honourable way:

    “Depend on it, the marriage, if it had taken place, would not have proved a happy one. Miss Vaughan has escaped a host of troubles; she is a fortunate woman, Maria.”
    “Fortunate! Edward, in having that sweet nature of hers, that would have warmed and expanded so freely in domestic life, left to chill and run waste in solitude. Fortunate! in seeing me and so many of her early friends surrounded with living objects of love and interest, while her early affections, thrown back, as it were, upon herself, can have caused only heart-bitterness and regret. Do you call this fortunate?”
    “My dear little wife, rely on it Miss Vaughan herself does not view her position in the light in which you have placed it; there is a cheerfulness about her that is genuine; I will answer for it that she is not a discontented woman.”
    “Discontented!” repeated Mrs Grove; “no, she is too wise and too good for that.”
    “Then, if she be not discontented, she cannot be unhappy; and if she is not unhappy, I repeat that she is fortunate.”
    “Ah! you men never can be made to understand a woman’s feelings—you do not do justice to Anne’s…”

There is some discussion about whether the two unsuspecting parties ought to be warned about their upcoming reunion, and it is finally agreed that this would only make them self-conscious and the meeting even more awkward (a decision I profoundly disagree with, but anyhoo). There is also some debate about whether the reunion was “fated”. Mrs Grove brightens at this thought, though the question of Colonel Estcourt’s marital status continues to intrude. Mrs Grove also regrets that another of their dinner guests will be Mrs Pemberton—a widow, but young, beautiful, and the worst flirt in the neighbourhood: a practice in which she uses her lookalike young daughter as a sort of fashion accessory, dressing her up like a mini-me and posing as a devoted mother.

The meeting between Miss Vaughan and Colonel Estcourt takes place, not without emotion, but without anything to capture the attention of unknowing parties. However, Mrs Pemberton proceeds to fulfill Mrs Grove’s worst fears. The widow’s sights are currently set upon Mr Johnstone, the rector of the parish, whose somewhat advanced years are offset by his devotion to her and his large personal fortune; but no sooner has the widow laid eyes on Colonel Estcourt – younger, more distinguished-looking, and richer – than she changes course like an Exocet missile. Mrs Grove’s exasperation with her is tempered only by the fact that her impertinent questioning does establish that the colonel is indeed still single.

Also exasperating to Mrs Grove is Miss Vaughan’s own determination to avoid the tête-à-têtes that she tries to arrange between her and Colonel Estcourt. Thwarted in one direction, the would-be match-maker tries another:

    “Ah, Anne,” said Mrs Grove, as we adjourned to our dressing-rooms, “we must not be one minute too late to-day; but there will be quite time for you to put on that sweetly pretty brocaded dress, which I admire so much. I will send Priscilla to you directly: I dare say Miss Brooke will excuse her attendance for a few minutes.”
    “Pray do not send her to me at all,” I replied, “I am my own tire-woman on all occasions.”
    “And, my dear Anne,” cried Mrs Grove, stopping for a moment longer at the door of Miss Vaughan’s room, “that little cap with the wreath of winter berries, it is so excessively becoming; do wear it to-day, to oblige me.”
    “My dear friend,” replied Miss Vaughan, laughing, “I will wear anything you please.”
    “Can I oblige you,” said I to Mrs Grove, “by adorning myself in any particular manner? I have a turban which was in fashion some fifty years ago, in which I flatter myself I should look quite captivating…”

In spite of his hostess’s efforts, Colonel Estcourt shows no reluctance to accept Mrs Pemberton’s invitations, nor any disinclination for her company; something resembling a rivalry even seems to develop between himself and Mr Johnstone. Dr Grove sees the three of them out walking together one afternoon, when he is dashing by in his carriage on his way to see a patient:

    “I hope you ladies have been enjoying this fine day,” said our host, in an interval of carving a noble turkey that was before him; ” I hope you have been enjoying it, no less than a certain fair friend of ours, whom I met, over the hills and far away, under a very imposing escort, having the benefit of clergy and a guard of honour besides.”
    Neither of the gentlemen at whom this remark was levelled could refrain from smiling.
    “How was it. Doctor,” inquired Mr Johnstone, “that you did not pull up for a chat when you met us, instead of driving on in double quick time? Mrs Pemberton’s sensibilities were so much excited by the apprehension that your extraordinary speed was an indication of one of your patients being in the extremity of danger, that the Colonel and I had enough to do to pacify the dear creature, and to subdue a strong fit of hysterics.”
    “Then the Colonel and you must have been infinitely obliged to me, I am sure,” replied Doctor Grove, “since it gave you the opportunity of affording consolation to beauty in distress. But how did you manage the hysterics? As the pond was frozen over, I fear there was no water at hand to throw over the lovely patient in order to abate their violence.”
    “That was fortunate for the fine feathers, at all events,” said I.
    “And especially fortunate, as fine feathers make fine birds,” added Mrs Grove.
    “My little wife is growing quite severe, I declare,” exclaimed Doctor Grove; “I appeal to Miss Brooke. Did you ever before hear her utter anything so nearly approaching to satire?”
    “I never did; but I suspect she has never yet had so fair a subject for it,” I replied.

(Those of us with an interest in the evolution of the English novel might care to note here the derogatory usage of those great 18th signifiers, sensibilities and hysterics.)

Mrs Grove is, however, a less subtle observer than Miss Brooke: as she frets over Colonel Estcourt’s apparent willingness to fall into the unsubtle traps of Mrs Pemberton, she does not notice what Miss Brooke sees clearly enough, how intently the colonel watches Miss Vaughan when she isn’t looking at him, how closely he pays attention when she speaks. Though even she has her doubts, expressed during an evening party at the widow’s:

    This little scene was almost too much for the patience of Mrs Grove. “I wish,” said she to me, almost in a whisper, “that my advice had been acted upon, and that we had remained at home this evening; Anne’s quiet elegance is quite lost here. Colonel Estcourt, you see, has neither eyes nor ears for any one but the little widow, who I was sure from the first moment of their meeting, had determined to make a conquest of him.”
    “And if she should succeed,” I replied in the same low tone, “he will be a prize not much worth contending for; but in my opinion she is shooting above the mark.”
    “You think, then,” said Mrs Grove, her countenance brightening as she spoke, “that he will not be tempted to give up the thought of Anne.”
    “I think,” answered I, “that any sentiment which Colonel Estcourt may entertain for Miss Vaughan must be of a character so totally different to the feeling which may be awakened by the sort of attractions possessed by the lady who is at the present moment engaging his attention, that the interest of your friend can in no way be affected by the admiration which he appears to bestow on her supposed rival; and yet,” I added, again glancing at the party whom we had criticised, “one must not be too secure: it is an every-day occurrence to see the silliest of women turning the heads of the most sensible men, and leading them to commit acts of egregious folly…”

The further we read into The Old Engagement, the harder it is to believe that Julia Day wasn’t deliberately invoking Persuasion. (Note, for one thing, her heroine’s first name.) Certainly the exasperation expressed by Mrs Grove and Miss Brooke as they watch Colonel Estcourt with Mrs Pemberton echoes that of Lady Russell in the earlier work: …her heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should, eight years afterwards, be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove.

Though of course what we have here is a gender-flipping of Persuasion’s central premise, with the man ending the engagement for what he believes to be the good of the woman, in doing so inflicting a wound that doesn’t heal—and only later being given the chance to realise the consequences of his actions.

It is presumably as Miss Vaughan’s determination not to let her wound dictate her life that we are to read her surprisingly numerous contemplations of other marital ventures; from which, however, she always manages to extricate herself, or is extricated by her author (albeit at the cost of death and lunacy). Perhaps Mr Conway was her version of Louisa Musgrove. More likely, however, is that Miss Vaughan was – at least to an extent – buying into the 19th century contention that only through marriage could a woman live a “worthwhile” life, if not be happy as such; and goodness knows that alternatives were thin on the ground until late in that century. We should not, however, underestimate the significance of Miss Vaughan’s creator (was Julia Day married? – was she not?) offering opposition to this dogma in the form of the contented, self-determining Miss Brooke.

But marriage and related topics continue to occupy the thoughts of the three ladies. One day, while the men are pursuing outdoor activities, they stay in to sew and read…a new novel that had fortunately just come to hand, would furnish us with ample occupation and entertainment till we should all re-assemble at dinner. The work in question happens to deal with, the difficulties attending a long engagement of marriage—

(—and you better bet I stopped to try and work out if a real mid-1850s novel was being referenced; though nothing sprang to mind—)

—which prompts some serious and rather sad conversation:

    “I can imagine few states so perplexing,” said Miss Vaughan, “few so precarious. Love—I mean that love which is combined both of sentiment and passion—must of necessity decline in intensity as years ripen the judgement and moderate the feelings. Attractions, on the woman’s side, at least, are certain to fail; and the result of all this is, as a matter of course, to produce, in one party, at all events, a disinclination to ratify, in mature life, an engagement formed in early youth. It is sometimes done, we know; but I doubt if it ever be with a full feeling of satisfaction.”
    “I am very much of your opinion,” I replied, “although within my own circumscribed range of observation I have met with more than one happy exception. As to marriages in general that are entered upon somewhat late in life, and that have not been preceded by engagements of unusual length, I am disposed to view them favourably. They are for the most part judiciously formed; and where there exists no striking disparity of station—no startling dissimilarity of habits and tastes—I am inclined to believe that as fair a share of happiness may be looked for in unions of this description as in the love matches of the young.”
    “I cannot agree with you there,” said Miss Vaughan. ” No, my dear Miss Brooke, it is the young only, I feel persuaded, who can find true happiness in marriage. Solace, protection, companionship, it may afford in after-life; but felicity in union can, I imagine, only be found in the sweet spring-time of youth.”
    “You mean, I imagine, that the romance of affection can only exist at that early period?”
    “Yes, something of that,” replied Miss Vaughan, “all that gives to love the inexpressible grace and charm with which it invests the object of its choice; this dies with our youth, certainly. In after-life, a rational attachment may spring up—a calm affection, founded on the high or endearing qualities which we perceive in another—but this has little affinity with the love that springs straight from the heart, and holds no consultation with the head; this last, I suspect, can exist only in youth—in early youth.”
    “Ah! my dear Miss Vaughan,” I exclaimed, “pardon me if I warn you against the encouragement of too tender a recollection of that transitory season, lest it lead you to value too lightly the sober happiness that in mature life may be both given and received.”

Miss Vaughan’s championing of “the love that springs straight from the heart” is thus set against Miss Brooke’s “sober happiness”; and we likewise recall Dr Grove’s contention that at the time of their engagement, Miss Vaughan and the future Colonel Estcourt were both “too young”. However, though by now we have learned to heed our narrator’s pearls of wisdom, there is no question that Miss Vaughan is speaking directly to her own experience of young love, young passion—which was taken away from her by the object of that passion.

And this, ultimately, is why I find The Old Engagement a disappointment: we never really get to the bottom of why the engagement was broken off. We are given only Dr Grove’s comment about the age of the couple, and this early exchange between the Groves:

    “I don’t see that, Maria,” replied her husband; “you seem to view this affair in a false and exaggerated light. The engagement was broken off, if I remember rightly, by mutual consent.”
    “To be sure it was. Anne had too proud a heart to enter a family who were unwilling to receive her.”
    “Well, then, I don’t see that any blame could attach to Estcourt himself.”
    “Indeed! How was he justified in winning her affections, in drawing her into a positive engagement, and then coolly writing to say that his family objected to a connection with hers, and leaving it to herself to determine whether, under such circumstances, their engagement ought to continue?”
    “My dear, the right or the wrong of this depended entirely, in my opinion, on the manner in which it was done; and I have no doubt that Estcourt expressed himself with as much consideration for Miss Vaughan’s feelings as, under the circumstances, was possible. There is no question that it was a most imprudent engagement…”

—and that is all we get: from the parties themselves we get nothing, beyond Anne’s assertion (quoted in the header) that the engagement was “broken by himself”.

As the novel progresses, Mrs Grove gets the tête-à-têtes she wanted; but what this means in practice is that she and Miss Brooke – and the reader – are not privy to the conversations of Anne Vaughan and Lawrence Estcourt as they work through their past and come to a new understanding; they, and we, see only the reactions of each until they are ready to make an announcement:

…we returned to the other room, where Miss Vaughan was still standing at the window. She did not immediately turn her face towards us, and when she did so there were traces of emotion visible on it. Colonel Estcourt now left us, to give orders for the carriage to be in readiness, and during the few minutes of his absence, Mrs Grove and I had recourse to the telescope and the distant prospect in order to give Miss Vaughan the opportunity of recovering her equanimity unnoticed by us. She was looking quite calm and happy when I next glanced at her countenance, as Colonel Estcourt was assisting her into the carriage and sedulously folding a cloak round her…

In context, I can’t help comparing this to Jane Austen’s fine forensic analysis of Anne Elliot’s motives in breaking her engagement, being persuaded that it was for Frederick Wentworth’s own good; of her immediate, and ongoing, regret; and of her realisation that she has wrecked her own life, if not his. Nor, as I say, do we get to listen in as the couple re-negotiates their relationship. And least of all do we get anything remotely resembling Anne Elliot’s indelible declaration of hopeless love.

And no, of course I’m not suggesting that Julia Day should be able to rival Jane Austen; but she could do better than this, and thankfully we saw that in The Gilberts And Their Guests.


There are two points further I want to consider in The Old Engagement

—well, three, if you count this from the sulky Mrs Pemberton: even a broken clock is right twice a day:

    “…it is a serious thing to be engaged, is it not, Mrs Pemberton?”
    “Indeed it is,” she answered, with a slight toss of the head, “and for my part, I think all people who are engaged to be married ought to wear an engaged ring, that everybody should know it.”
    “What! gentlemen as well as ladies?” said the Doctor.
    “Yes, gentlemen particularly,” she answered, “that the ladies may not be deceived by them.”

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot in this novel, and it is only a subplot, though it too leads to discussion of good and bad marriages, that involves another neighbouring family, the Willises. Emma Willis is young and pretty, but not very bright, and rather weak; it becomes evident early to the reader, if not her parents, that she is carrying on a secret romance with a young man who himself hasn’t the best of reputations: though he regarded as unsteady rather than “bad”. All this culminates in an elopement; and though there is reason at first to fear the worst, when the couple are found they have been married out of a relative’s house.

In a way this makes things worse: obviously the elopement was anything but spontaneous, but rather the result of a lot of planning and secret arrangements over quite a period of time; and it is the deceit of it that horrifies everyone.

Julia Day, via her characters, agrees with this line of argument; but then things take a more unexpected turn: she blames Emma Willis’ weakness of character upon bad parenting.

Parents per se, parenting generally, obedience to parents in particular, are subjects so sacrosanct in so much of 18th and 19th century English fiction that it is genuinely startling when you find someone willing to take that particular bull by the horns.

Longstanding visitors might recall my examination of Marion’s Path Through Shadow To Sunshine by someone called “Miss Meeke” (because if there’s one thing I need at this blog, it’s another author called “Meeke”). This short, didactic work intended for young readers ties itself into knots on this point, expressing utter horror at the very thought of childish disobedience, while at the same time cursing its titular anti-protagonist with an awful mother who clearly should not be obeyed. And it never even attempts to deal with this contradiction: Marion stays with her aunt for a while and from her learns to be a better person, but is then packed off again without any advice offered on how to reconcile her ghastly mother’s terrible parenting with demands for unquestioning filial obedience.

The Old Engagement, however, concludes that while Emma Willis is certainly at fault, her parents are too: they have made her this way. Emma, we learn, is inflicted by, on one side, an overly-indulgent father, but one who pays insufficient attention; and on the other, by a cold and nasty mother who seems to enjoy making her daughter’s life miserable (possibly out of jealousy over Mr Willis’ fondness for her): and in negotiating between the two, Emma has learned to tell fibs and be secretive and go her own way—something that Julia Day, although by no means uncritical, treats as only to be expected:

    “It is a very sad business, I fear,” said Colonel Estcourt.
    “These runaway matches usually prove most disastrous, and are soon bitterly repented of,” I remarked.
    “In this case,” said Miss Vaughan, “I think the young man must be exceedingly culpable; for Miss Willis appeared simple as a child.”
    “He practised a good deal of artifice to-night, in his apparent devotion to Mrs Pemberton, and thereby most completely succeeded in lulling to rest the suspicions which Mrs Willis had begun to entertain of his being an admirer of her daughter, and thus rendering her less vigilant than she otherwise might have been,” said I.
    “Mr Willis so doted on his daughter, that I pity him exceedingly: Mrs Willis, whatever her affection might have been, had not a happy manner of showing it in her behavior to the poor girl,” observed Miss Vaughan.
    “She had not,” I acquiesced, “but perhaps the young lady needed a little more severity than we were aware of. I have noticed on more than one occasion some indications of self-will and stubbornness on her part, that were anything but pleasing; and worse than this, she did not scruple to have recourse to subterfuge when she thought it might screen her from her mother’s displeasure; but these faults were likely enough the fruits of the injudicious mode in which she has been brought up…”

(It is inferred, by the way, that in making this runaway match Frank Edwards is calculating on Mr Willis being indulgent enough to capitulate quickly and settle a tidy income on his daughter…and he’s right.)

Julia Day’s cool assessment of all points of this situation, and her willingness to ignore the prevailing social dogma in her various criticisms of the Willises, is far more like what we get from her in The Gilberts And Their Guests.

One final point:

We do eventually get some conversation about Miss Vaughan’s other engagements. Speaking of capitulation, that with Mr Lacy was out of “pure compassion” (in other words, he wore down her resistance); but it is, of course, the other engagement that we want explained:

    “With that unfortunate Mr Conway,” cried Mrs Grove; “I confess, my dear Anne, I never could comprehend how that came to pass.”
    “Through my own weakness,” she replied: “I was fairly captivated by his brilliancy of conversation; and I looked on his eccentricity as the result of extraordinary talent, never for a moment suspecting that it was the offspring of a diseased mind…”

Dear me.



One Comment to “The Old Engagement”

  1. “Of information about the lady herself, I can offer nothing more.”

    Ooh, let me guess. She married a husband who deserted her, returning every few years to take all the money in the house and get her pregnant again, so she turned to writing to survive? Seems to be the usual pattern…

    “my dear little wife” – I checked with my own wife what her reaction would be to this, and she said “Throw something, or hit you, unless in very special circumstances indeed.”

    Does seem a sad disappointment, though; as though Day had read Persuasion but missed the point of it.

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