Harriet Martineau rarely wrote novels. Instead, this 19th century woman of letters focused on sociological writing like Illustrations of Political Economy, Society in America, and Retrospect of Western Travel. Deerbrook (1839) was her first attempt at fiction, a three volume Victorian novel that came after Jane Austen but before Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. The book is best appreciated as a historical artifact of women’s literature rather than able to stand on its own merits. I freely admit to only making it through the first volume, not terribly interested in the tedious musings about marriage that seemed destined to carry me through the remaining 400 pages.
In the first volume, the lovely Ibbotson sisters come to stay for the summer at their distant relative Mr. Grey’s house in Deerbrook. Marriage speculation and plotting begins as soon as they arrive, with the doctor Mr. Hope being set up to marry the prettiest sister, Hester. Unfortunately, he really loves her sister Margaret, who despite being plain is of the kinder/gentler persuasion. Hope gets entangled in a marriage with someone he doesn’t love, and Margaret lives with them, bringing fresh pain daily. There’s an amusing rivalry between the wives of the two business partners, Grey and Rowland, but as it slogs on without reprieve for at least the 200 pages that I suffered through, it began to grate on the nerves.
Martineau herself never married, describing herself as ‘probably the happiest single woman in England.’ Her deafness may have played some part in this, but it enabled her to write a fiction brimming with cautionary tales about marriage. In one scene between the schoolmistress, Maria Young, and Margaret, they muse about the silliness of brides. “And yet all girls are brought up to think of marriage as almost the only event in life. Their minds are stuffed with thoughts of it almost before they have had time to gain any other ideas.”