I’ve been much distracted by blackcurrant jam-making and by cute babies on Facebook, so excuse me that this is well after my proposed December hit-and-run job. Apart from anything else, I realized I missed not one, but two great posts from Pentimento, and while I was reading them and the erudite comments, I was sobered by thoughts like “Who did I think I am, footing it with these women who actually have thoughts their heads, besides jam and babies?” Not that jam and babies aren’t good things, mark you, but Aristotle never wrote “The Nichomachean Make-and-Do.”
Anyway, this is just a preamble for “this post won’t be very learned or deep.”
Melanie (I think) made a comment about the conventionality of the social relations in the book. They are those of the 1900s: man and wife, with the man’s widowed mother living with the couple as a matter of course. Benson was prescient on the subject of marriage as a civil contract, undertaken without the benefit of clergy and dissoluble, but the couple is, except for the fact that they are childless, otherwise severely conventional in a way that gave me pause to think how things have changed. Mabel is nineteen, Oliver, much older, a politician well-advanced in his party, who must be at least thirty.
The age disparity impinges on the narrative not a whit, except that it allows some de haut en bas exposition between the mature man and the very young woman. We don’t have an Effi Briest or an Anna Karenina here, youth unhappily yoked with age, instead we have – teachability, and it’s a sobering insight that even I, conventional to the nines, find this severely creepy and suspect. It used to be that parents regarded their daughters as well-settled if they married even a much older man, and not only in the fictional realm of Emma and Mr Knightley. My own grandmother’s husband-to-be took a photo of her away to WW1 with him. She was under fourteen at the time, and he, twenty-four, but this was a matter of no remark in the family. Attitudes have changed, but do we do better to expect equality of temperament and wisdom in couples of approximately the same age? (There must be a whole branch of social science devoted to investigating this question.)
The thought that I’m coming to is that the shock value for Benson’s first readers over Mabel’s suicide must have lain, not so much in the fact that houses of gentle death exist in the book, but that the government connives with her intention with no regard to her husband’s wishes. Benson’s laying-out of a couple so attractive and normal, and then for him to show how little traction the married relationship has in the absence of either a public or private faith, must be quite the most subversive thing in the book.
And “She had not even had a child” strikes me as the saddest sentence in the book.