Sunday, April 9, 2017
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
Deerbrook has been described as bridging the gap between Jane Austen and George Eliot. Published in 1839, I can see shades of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Middlemarch. At 600 pages long, it definitely tends a bit closer to Middlemarch.
Set about the 1830s, Deerbrook is the story of two sisters, Hester and Margaret Ibbotson, who are in their early twenties. Recently orphaned, they've left Birmingham to stay with cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Grey, in the village of Deerbrook. Mr. Grey runs a banking business with his partner, Mr. Rowland, whose property is directly adjacent. The Rowland and Grey children share a school room and a tutor, Miss Young, and Mrs. Rowland's mother, Mrs. Enderby also lives on the property in her own house.
Hester Ibbotson is considered a great beauty and her younger sister Margaret is clever and charming. Everyone in the village suspects one of them will be the bride of the unattached Mr. Hope, the apothecary. The sisters quickly become the center of village society, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Rowland, who is basically the Queen Bee -- she wants to be the center of attention at all times, and is miffed if someone else has a better party or picnic. She begins to harbor ill feelings for the two sisters, simply because they are drawing attention away from her and her family.
Meanwhile, there's a love triangle between the two sisters and Mr. Hope -- everyone expects him to fall for the beautiful Hester, who is in love with him, but he's actually fallen for Margaret. Unfortunately Margaret is actually falling for Mr. Enderby, Mrs. Rowland's sister, who will stop at nothing to separate them, including lies and deceit.
Mr. Hope is persuaded to marry Hester because he's somehow led her to believe he's interested and therefore made Hester fall in love with him, and he ends up marrying her out of a sense of duty. Things get further complicated when Margaret moves in with them, ostensibly because then she can contribute to their household income, which isn't much. Finances also become strained when Mr. Hope is asked by the local gentry to cast his vote for a local M.P. that he doesn't support. Mr. Hope believes it's better to stand up for his principles rather than abstain or toe the line, and this causes a lot of ill-feeling and begins to negatively affect his business. Things get worse when some nasty rumors about Mr. Hope's medical practice are revived, and Mrs. Rowland suddenly arrives with a new doctor to compete.
Martineau then ups the melodrama with nasty outbreak of fever sweeps through the village. Will Mr. Hope save the day? Will any of them die a protracted death? And Mr. Enderby and Margaret ever find true love?
This book had some great moments, though some of the characters were over-the-top, and some storylines were unresolved. Also, there are long passages where Martineau tends to get preachy and long-winded. (She was a sociologist and suffragette as well as novelist, and is actually distantly related to the Duchess of Cambridge.) However, I really did like it and sped through the last 200 pages because I had to find out what was going to happen. It's quite a good domestic novel and to me it's nearly as good as some of my favorite Trollope novels. It's quite a pity that this book isn't better known -- I don't think it's even still in print here in the U.S.
I'm counting this as my Classic with an Animal for the Back to the Classics Challenge and towards the Victorian Reading Challenge.