Sunday, November 10, 2013

that place in the world which she was always longing for

Kirkham's Find by Mary Gaunt (1897)

Now that I'm writing about this book I wonder if was right when I said that Mr Hogarth's Will was the book that Dale Spender liked more than most other books. Kirkham's Find is superficially similar and I might have mingled them. Spence and Gaunt both want the reader to agree that a woman who works for her living is a right and good person. They sweeten the deal by throwing in a husband at the end. Husband is a decent gent. The man and the woman have both done the right thing and they are each other's reward.

They both end with this dangling QED.

(Decency is an aspiration in these books, Phoebe in Kirkham's moving into a dirty cottage and battling it, "she was a strong, active young woman, not afraid of work, and with a good fire, lots of hot water and plenty of soap, things soon began to assume a different aspect," fighting in spiritual combat against the lazy cottage next door -- decency here is an extrapolation of non-complacency and struggle. Battlers are decent. (Bells ringing in Australian minds: the Little Aussie Battler.) The Chisholm book about Female Immigration is a record of the same tentacular ideas being extended onto fleshy people. Chisholm assumes that they should be so extended: she does not expect anyone in her audience to disagree. And the ground is watered for her by books like this, though not these books in particular; she came before them. Their minds run into one another and the idea reappears with a new moustache or a hat. Am I right when I see egalitarianism here, with these people telling you that you might not be able to be titled or rich or formally educated, but anybody can be decent, even if you are "the manager of a butter factory" (Gaunt) -- yet, a question, whose vision of egalitarianism is this?)

Spence's book's desire to be conventional is sharper: it starts with a piece of come-hither drama when two sisters lose everything and a man is not allowed to marry the woman he loves or else he will lose everything too. Gaunt doesn't have that; the women in her story are poor but the family has enough money to keep them alive. They are discontented, that is the problem. Their selves are starved.

Beside Nancy's sparkling eyes and fresh complexion her sister's pale face looked sallow; her dark hair, though abundant, was dull in hue; her heavy brown eyes were too deep-set, and her whole face wore a sad and discontented air which alone would have spoiled far greater beauty than she possessed. Her figure was good and she was tall, and had she had but that place in the world which she was always longing for, there would have been many to call the eldest Miss Marsden a handsome woman.

Phoebe's problem is multi-pronged (she has no money, she has a passive-aggressive and hostile family, she is getting older) but essentially she needs to be content.

(She is in the same situation as Louie Pollit is, in The Man Who Loved Children, needing to get away from her family for the sake of her soul, and the Marsden father mollycoddles himself like Sam.)

She goes after independence stoically and firmly and Gaunt follows her methodically and slowly from one action to another, watching her as she approaches each problem.

First there is the keeping of a few hives in converted crates, then the slow organisation of honey-selling -- which means that she has to catch lifts into Ballarat with her monstrous father -- then the gradual accumulation of money and hives with the assistance of "a quaint American bee journal" named Gleanings in Bee Culture by A.I. Root who lived in Medina, Ohio, where the local school's football team is still known as The Battling Bees.

Everything happens chronologically slowly inside the world of the story, even the mail is slow, gold prospecting is slow, bee-accumulation is slow; the few fast things are not worthwhile (Nancy marries a rich man for quick money), only gradual steady motion is trustworthy, though even then the ending is ambiguous ("Phoebe, dear, you really are marrying the wrong man," says one of Phoebe's other sisters and the author may not think that she is wrong), the world is not perfect, Gaunt herself demonstrating the steadiness principle with the matter of her writing, the style proceeding at an even pace, nothing flashy, just making its way on, adding the few extra words that will make the meaning more than clear ("dull in hue," when she could have left it at "dull," colloquial trust overpowered by the desire to have the reader utterly possess and cohabit with the writer's intention), not stinting, and going onwards for its reward.

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