Tuesday, January 7, 2014

East Lynne, the Shocking Conclusion, and Another Terrible Place

The story comes back after Lady's Isabelle's bastard is born, but he doesn't come into the story much. Lady Isabelle is sitting miserably in rented rooms in France, her pale, sickly newborn in the cradle beside her, when Levison comes in. He abandoned her months before, but he's come to offer her money. She, retaining pride, refuses and swears that she knew not forty-five minutes of happiness with Levison before she wished she were back with Mr. Carlisle and her poor children. and she has rued leaving every moment since. Levison leaves, appreciating how easy getting it was to get rid of her, and Lady Isabelle thinks that she will look into that working-for-a-living-and-becoming-a-governess-thing finally. But on the way from one place in France to another, there is a train accident and her baby is killed. The newspapers says that she is killed, too, and when Mr. Carlisle reads that, he finally asks Barbara for her hand in marriage. You see. Years pass. Mr. Carlisle and Barbara make a baby. Lady Isabelle finds a position governessing under an assumed name. She is changed, no longer the beautiful, innocent flower who once was the light of her father's eye. Grey-haired, stooped, limping from the railway accident, with a scar on her lower face, old-fashioned colored glasses, always with a shawl and veil, she looks queer but not unemployable. In fact, when a lady from West Lynne comes to France on holidays and happens to tell Lady Isabelle's employer that the Carlisle family of East Lynne is looking for a governess, Lady Isabelle applies. And suddenly she is back at East Lynne. In shame. In disguise. With her husband married to the woman that he promised her he wouldn't marry. Rather than say, "I didn't really love you from the beginning, but I had to marry you because my relatives are abusive and I had no options. You were having an affair with Barbara Hare! Remember when I told you not to invite my second cousin to East Lynne?" Lady Isabelle takes every moment as a penance and beats herself up with it. One of her children dies, and she beats herself up with that too. She becomes weak and consumptive. She prays for forgiveness. She coughs blood. You can probably guess who reveals what and who forgives whom on whose death bed.

I won't spoil the murder bit for you, although I can say that a rake is a rake is a rake and it's really obvious who was courting Athie Hallijohn under the name of Thorne from about the middle of the book. Only one scoundrel per novel.

Mrs. Henry Wood did not write East Lynne to promote the emancipation of women, but she may as well have. Lady Isabelle's inability to control her own destiny by any means except marrying the first nice-ish person who came along is her real tragedy. Carlisle isn't a bad man. Mrs. Wood writes him as a kind gentleman, and he is, but he treats both his wives like they're the cutest kid in the whole kindergarten. As for Miss Carlisle, her role is superfluous and comic, but she was my favorite. All those brains and all that energy, and nothing to do with it. The poor woman. This book was written slightly after women gained the right to keep property brought to a marriage after its disolution by death in England, and that's mentioned briefly. One small step for women, but nothing like the rights that these women needed to avoid their tragic fates.

One last note on East Lynne: It's full of interesting details about early Victorian England. Lady Isabelle's disguise includes colored glasses. One day, when she is walking with Miss Carlisle and Isabelle Junior, Lady Isabelle in disguise breaks her glasses and they go into the spectacle shoppe to buy new ones. Miss Carlisle, who is too smart not to suspect Lady Isabelle, suggests she gets white glasses, which are the fashion, and Lady Isabelle says she is used to colored ones. White glasses? Now you know: white glasses. Also, when Miss Carlisle is meddling in her brother's business, she always says, "What's up?" 1862 usage of "What's up?" It's not just what teenagers say to each other. It's older than the abolition of slavery in America. Speaking of...

I saw Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze on a list of good books with bad covers, and it is, although the cover's okayish. The words inside it are bloody brilliant. I did say, however, that this pair of blogs is about terrible places to live, and the Fairchild Plantation is the worst. No one in East Lynne or Old Trail Town owns slaves.

The Freedom Maze has this interesting historical novel within a historical novel thing going on. Sophie Fairchild-Maxwell is being left with her aunt and grandmama for the summer while her mother, groundbreakingly divorced, it being 1960, goes back to school to become a CPA. Sophie has free run to explore the plantation, poke around in the crumbling slave quarters, swim in the bayou, and walk through the hedge maze, where a trickster spirit pops in and fools with her. Sophie, having grown up in the city away from legends, thinks this is jolly good fun and ends up telling the spirit that she wants lots of friends and an adventure. Bad choice. She foomps up in the big house in 1860, she knows it, with all the pretty dresses in the closet, the pitcher and basin on the table, the silver brush and comb. While she's inspecting those valuable items, her sixteen-year-old great-great-great aunt comes into the room and starts screaming. In front of her great-great-great-great grandpa, Sophie tries to explain what's happened and who she is, but it's already obvious to everyone in her family what's going on: a curly-haired, tan young girl who looks exactly like them in the face and is in possession of a distinctive Fairchild nose has to be the octaroon daughter of Uncle Robert in New Orleans and some slave woman. Sophie is put to training as a house slave or lady's maid.

All the slaves on Fairchild plantation are named after countries or continents. Sophie rooms with a woman called Africa, one of the strongest people in a place full of strong women, and her daughter Antigua, who's an older teenager, a younger daughter who befriends Sophie first (as per Sophie's wish), and a son who might be sweet on Sophie. Sophie is grateful for the kindness, after the pain of not going home right away wears off into a dull blur of work and vague memories. Delia Smith moves Sophie around the plantation and the life of slaves in touching in the humanity they can bring to such a barbaric system. When she's blamed for trying to steal the silver hairbrush, she gets put out to the sugarcane processing facility, which is nearly unbearable. Eventually, Sophie's sojourn in 1860 ends trying to help Antigua escape and she's left to face her life in 1960 and dig through the detritus of her slave-owning ancestors to try to find what happened to Antigua, Africa and everybody else. The Freedom Maze is fantastic. Fairchild Plantation is horrible place full of slave-owners.

Next up: a miscellany.

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