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Mary Taylor’s Miss Miles — one of several cover illustrations, Oxford UP, introduced by Janet H. Murray

Friends and readers,

I so enjoyed this book I am in danger of over-praising it. So I will begin by conceding it’s not Middlemarch; and if I say that I first read about Mary Taylor and conceived a desire to read her book from Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s portrait of her, description of her novel, and story of her friendship with Charlotte Bronte, which in their A Secret Sisterhood: the Literary Friendships of Jane Austen [Anne Sharpe], Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf also includes a number of passages from Taylor’s letters to Charlotte, you must not expect the density of poetic and erudite diction found in Charlotte or Anne’s novels.

But if you are willing to come down a little in your expectation, partly because this is Taylor’s first (and alas last) novel, accept some visible struggles in the structuring and knitting together of the book’s several stories, a multi-plot pattern which accommodates four central heroines, Miss Miles is as insightful, eloquent, with cogent dramatically realized lessons that women must be allowed to become maturely independent, self-supporting when the need arises (as it often does in ordinary women’s lives even among the 19th century middling classes), self-respecting and morally brave as many of the finer still read and known 19th century English novels. My header title comes from Murray’s introduction where she writes: the novel “reflects [Mary Taylor’s] lifelong advocacy of independence for women and her lifelong experience of women’s courage and sustaining friendships.”


An old photograph of Mary Taylor on an alpine expedition taken with friends in 1874: she is on the far left, age 57

I will leave it to my reader to click on Taylor’s name (above) to read Nick Holland’s short biography of Taylor. You will discover in Murray’s introduction a full life of Taylor’s teaching, rebellions, early traveling, time in New Zealand and long life in Yorkshire after she made enough money not to have to work. Ironically for all that she argued forcefully all women must work to become independent, as soon as she was able to stop all week long hour working in a business she created she quit — not to be idle, but to devote the rest of her life to reading and good causes — and travel and enjoyment with others. There are a number of characters and events that link Bronte’s Shirley to Mary Taylor’s life; nonetheless, Taylor severely criticized Bronte for her timidity in her books, for being coopted herself, for sacrificing herself to her father, and she did scold Charlotte in life. What is most poignant is that what emerges is the father was central to Charlotte’s choices for most of her life to self-erase, abase her talent, and sacrifice herself to him. Today we have a big chorus normalizing the man, making him ever so attractive, but here is another account which proves that Gaskell had it right.


The Red House, Taylor home in Gomersal (from In Search of Anne Bronte)

For other criticism, common readers’ voices, here is a sizable thread from “good reads”, where the central posting describes the book as original in its use of a bildingsroman for four young women, feminist, about women’s friendships, and morally intense. This prompts a number of postings by people responding well to the novel (one in Italian). It was written and rewritten over the course of Taylor’s life, so while it’s set in mid-century, the feel and attitudes of mind the book speaks to are those of century’s end, and is part of a series published by Oxford for the British Library, as by “female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day.”

In a recent Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 2021 (p. 19), in “Tales of Hopeless Husbands”, Lucy Scholes writes charmingly about this series — of the intelligence, appeal and some of the common themes across these books. Scholes cites several and describes a few novels that sound very good, one by an author brought back by today’s feminism, May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven; a number of Sinclair’s novels are still read, and are reprinted by Virago too, e.g., The Life of Harriet Frean). Another author in this series is E.H. Young’s Chatterton Square in which the secondary heroine is a spinster wholly dependent upon a (married) friend for their shared income — the friend passes as a widow and is thus respectable but in fact she is merely bravely separated from her husband. Young is still remembered for her Miss Mole and found in Virago and Persephone books. Scholes thinks the best of the fine books she is writing about Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s O the Brave Music. In a number of the books described we discover marrying a particular man (a bad choice) ruined the narrator’s (or heroines’) hopes for a fulfilling life. A rare gay one is Elizabeth Armin’s apparently lesser known Father (rain does fall in this book).

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Taylor’s Miss Miles fits right in with the worlds captured in this British Library series. Eventually there emerge five distinctly different women characters, one, Miss Everard, somewhat older than the others so not part of the bildingsroman in quite the same way: they differ somewhat in class, nature, probably occupation (for all but one are intended to do something towards earning the family’s living and their own within the family), less so in age. However all five prove to be on the edge of economic disaster (and two topple over for a while, with one dying), their circumstances are different psychologically and sociologically:

Two of our heroines, Sarah or Miss Miles and Maria or Miss Bell, are strongly supported emotionally, intellectually and insofar as income will go, economically by family and close friends. Sarah is the daughter of two shopkeepers who encourage her musical talent; she must struggle with them to go to school,but they support many of her choices to become a servant (only for a while), to sing in a neighborhood choir (with young men) and then in the established church (they are dissenters) — though we see how obedient she is, and how they could thwart her. Maria, a Vicar’s daughter both of whose gentle intelligent parents die, leaving her with a small legacy with which she (against much disapproval and invented obstacles from the neighborhood and an uncle, Mr Turner, supposed to help her) opens a school. Dora Woodman’s mother, a widow, marries badly for a second time, and her husband, a brutal ignorant man, is partly responsible for her mother, his wife’s decline and death, with Dora left isolated, with no opportunity to learn manners, or to improve her skills from books or training of any kind. My heart felt deeply for Dora whose bearing and character slide down until late in the story her step-father’s death rescues her in the sense she must turn to Maria, come to live with her, who luckily at that point, has just enough to share and encourage her in a plan she has to become a lecturer (again against advice, which angers Maria).

The seemingly most privileged, Amelia Turner, a property owner’s delicately brought up daughter, engaged to a wealthy young man who pretends to share her genuine literary tastes, finds when her father, the same Mr Turner’s film goes broke for a while, she is forbidden to do anything to help support them or herself lest it should shame him or bring them down in status. It is she who is worn down by hostility in her family to her desire not to sit doing nothing, starving, pretending all is well, by the turning against her and dropping her of the still wealthy in the town; in this novel the decline and death of a female character is made believable by long experience of frustration, ostracizing, and desperation. Loneliness afflicts her, Dora, and Miss Everard, genteel in the manner of Amelia, whom we discover has been readily cheated by Turner for years since she was taught nothing about money and yet to fear to ask any male she feels dependent upon about her situation. Her class bias (snobbery) at once keeps her spirits up and estranges her from others who might help her; her pride keeps her alienated and supports her.


Roe Head School where Mary Taylor, Charlotte Bronte — and Ellen Nussey met and spent some of their years growing up together — schools gone to and the experiences had therein are enormously important in Miss Miles — and if a girl or boy does not go to school that is equally crucial to his future. At the same time we see how young adults do not at first understand why this “book” learning is so important until later in life …

Miss Miles has other female characters, several of whom figure importantly in the different stories as well as male characters who variously court, are friends with, help, or hinder our heroines: of especial importance, Sam Sykes, close to Sarah from childhood, who becomes Mr Turner’s partner for a while, is also cheated by him, but manages to escape the burden of debt that would have sunk him by selling the failing business and choosing another less prestigious trade; his sister, Harriet, who marries early on; they live close to the Miles family. Sydney Winde, part of this group of people just below gentility, a fine musician; Mr Branksome whom Maria becomes involved with (they write letters to one another); Mr Thelwal, who breaks the engagement with Amelia, and is a harsh creditor to her father. Mrs Overton and other wealthier county ladies; Mrs Dodds, a Vicar’s wife. A thorougly people world is built to represent Repton, and the West Riding around the town. I found myself utterly identifying with Taylor’s heroines in many of the scenes of social satire, and thought her text remarkably nuanced in exposing how people manipulate and put one another down, discourage, encourage, hurt in a variety of experiences. How people in power cannot always make up their minds to reveal vulnerability or need and so will puzzle those dependent on them for work or as educators.

One of people in our group wrote in to say:

I am actually quite engrossed by this novel and read ahead. What I like about the book is that it feels so raw and angry (note how often the word “anger“ is mentioned in the text). Yes, the writing is often clumsy and wooden but it does feel so honest. Taylor is grappling to find the right words to express how these girls are struggling in the world, how they are trying to find their place, protect those they love but ultimately cannot help (Dora and her mother – I could really relate to Dora – her helpless rage about her mother´s wrong decision in marrying this horrible man Woodman who just needs a housekeeper and his equally horrid, unkind, cruel sons). I really like this focus on women/mothers/girls and how they interact with one another. Also, it´s such a nice change not to have a love story lurking around the corner …

One of the themes of this book is there is more to life that makes it worth living than being monetarily successful or rising in rank. Yet one does need money — to back a school, to feed yourself, to pay what’s necessary for rent or taxes or loans. In one of the book’s turns, the world the characters live in suddenly becomes poorer — they do not understand the workings of this but they are many of the characters done in for a while or permanently by a depression. The key note is “There’s summat wrong somewhere,” repeated in variations, “There’s surely summat wrong when such as he wor cannot live,” just after a recitation ending in “He’s worked all his life, and couldn’t get on, an this is t’end on it!” The novel teaches that it is not an individual’s fault if he or she goes under and that after years of effort, you may well go under at any time. Taylor puts it this way for Sarah: she was “face to face with the great problem of existence, how was she to live.” Trollope makes light of women’s choices (marry the man and have two children and all will be well), thus dismissing the idea a woman has an individual existence, and will be responsible for herself when her husband fails, or leaves her, or dies. The narrator shows us how poverty leads to anti- or asocial behaviors — in desperation in phrases like “the fierce self-assertion that poverty makes necessary” (p. 175)

Another voice from our group:

” For me what stood out in this chapter was Sarah’s realization that despite years of hard work one could still end up poor, starving and dead. It’s definitely at odds with her longstanding goal of working hard which will naturally (in her mind) bring her wealth and happiness. It still seemed a shock when she said she would go into service like her sister. This reminds me of Gaskell’s novels where the working poor are disregarded by mill owners who don’t realize the extreme circumstances they live and die under. Here it is the government who is the culprit for not providing aid to hardworking people who face dire circumstances …”

Another: “I also found this chapter very powerful and felt deeply for Sarah as she asks if this is all there is to life. The singing and sense of community in the chapter help to dispel the gloom. I can’t help thinking this life was far gloomier than ours, as gloomy as life is right now in many ways, because they had less sources of entertainment, less connection outside their immediate community, less sense of overall hope for a chance to change their situation, and yet, I suspect they drew strength from the community in a way most of us don’t anymore.”

While there are bad and stupid people in Miss Miles, who make various individuals’ lives much worse (Mr Turner, Mr Thelwall, Mrs Overton), the situation itself is not attributed to specific individuals but implicitly to the whole system of money-making and trade. Gaskell also dramatizes how a crowd of people can emerge to demand the right not to starve, the right to make their gov’t improve their lives and works into her text the larger perspective of knowledgeable people — so explanations of what a strike is, a lockout, how pressing is wrong. Taylor tries to stay within in the level of understanding of her participants and she nowhere blackens them as a mob. She shows how hunger, loss, desperation brings people out because they do know there are authorities who can help them. Not only is “summat wrong,” there are ways to make it “right.” We see how chapel brings people together. Since her POV is a girl who would be forbidden to join and does join a march anyway we are so aware of how women aren’t wanted. They are told to go away. To this day many protests and demonstrations and mob scenes in the middle east are all men. No women obviously to be seen. We are witnessing these people educating themselves by protesting. In Mary Barton John Barton returned from London bitter and disillusioned from having tried to petition parliament (the chartist movement) but we do not experience the scene. Taylor includes this line about women: “for women to earn their own livings was almost impossible.” She is thinking of unmarried or separated or divorced or widowed women — women w/o men and unless in service cannot earn their own living. Maria’s school is not doing well. Sarah’s mother while overtly against her going on this march sympathizes with her when she does.


It seems to me closest in feel and story and class level to Miss Miles is Oliphant’s Kirsteen (subtitle: a Scots Story of Seventy Years Ago)

For me the qualified happy endings for all the characters but Amelia (and her bad father, Mr Turner, and a few others who die along the way) were convincing and satisfying. For example, the penultimate chapter “in which” Maria Bell rescues Miss Everard from starving in her cold flat; Miss Everard protests a little but soon is transferred to the house Maria has rented to serve as a school; a quietly Dickensian or maybe Gaskell-like scene follows as the two sup and eat by a fire together. Maria’s tutoring goes on, her small amount makes the difference as Miss Everard (who it turns out is owed money) becomes a sort of housekeeper. The chapter closes on Dora’s visit, with 5 pounds gift from her successful lecturing.

The book does end on two expected marriages. Sarah finally returns home from her various stints as servant, music teacher, companion, to find Sam returned from having chosen a failure that frees him to start afresh. Perhaps the scenes between them move too quickly, but we have much earlier in novel understood they are a pair and embedded in their intertwined family and chapel groups. But there will be no more invitations from the Overtons or the established church types for Sam and Sarah. I was reminded of Ross Poldark being told how he will now not be invited to upper class functions since he married his kitchen maid, Demelza. Ross: “Well I think I’ll survive it.” Our letter writing suitor, Branksome did have to persist, and here it’s telling that Maria never forgives him (but agrees to stop harping on it) for telling her to desert Dora (as beneath her). One of the women in our discussion did say (rightly) “the women were at odds with their future husbands, Maria more deservedly so I think. But within a flash, both admit their love and agree to marriage. Sammy and Sarah was interestingly without romantic language while Maria did admit she couldn’t live without Branksome and he declared he couldn’t/wouldn’t live without her”

“I don’t know how Amelia could have escaped the circumstances of her life. She had ideas of personal responsibility and work, but was too tied to her family structure and perhaps hadn’t the level of courage which Dora finally mustered that would have been required to leave home and make her own way. So I don’t know how the author could have resolved Amelia’s story except by her death. But it did remind me of the highly emotional withering away of other female characters, although typically for romantic reasons rather than being unable to pursue an ethical self-fulfillment.

The two outlier women, Dora and Miss Everard, seemed to represent the progress women have been making. Miss Everard totally ignorant of business which left her to be victimized by Turner for so many years versus Dora who has become a successful and independent career woman out in the world. Never could have guessed Dora’s outcome at the beginning of the novel.”

I responded that Sarah was presented all along as a pragmatic, phlegmatic type — a chip off her mother, whom she is not separated from. If there is less romance between our Sykes couple, by the book’s end there is already a little Sarah. Amelia’s is the tragedy of the book and perhaps that’s just right for it. Its deepest message is to keep women from working out their natures and capabilites and what is that in this world but often a job is to destroy them. In a deep way, unconsciously perhaps, Mary Taylor is defying gender fault-lines for understanding male and female characters. Men need to live emotionally fulfilling lives, and women need to be alive in the worlds of societies.

Taylor lacks the artistry of Oliphant and Gaskell — we see how she strains at the opening to introduce and to knit all her character groups together. She does not endow most of her characters with the learning Oliphant, Gaskell do — and of course Eliot and the Brontes both (not Emily). Perhaps also Gaskell is at times as angry at conditions for the poor or average person as Taylor is — as in heer North and South (remember Mr Higgins whose solutions are given respect, credence).


From the 2004 BBC North and South (Sandy Welch, Brian Perceval), Mr Higgens (Brendan Coyle)

I wish Miss Miles were a book one could assign in an OLLI but it cannot be. One cannot find enough readily available affordable copies and it lacks the prestige that would persuade the ordinary reader to try it.

Ellen

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