A Marked Man, Ada Cambridge
Quoting from Ada Cambridge's novel The Three Miss Kings, in a post about Anthony Trollope's Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, reminded me that I still had two of her books on the TBR stacks. They were quickly acquired while I was still bowled over by The Three Miss Kings, but then of course I got distracted by other books. I did start this one a couple of times, but I didn't connect with the story, so I put it back to try again later. I find that happening more often these days. A reading friend and I have a theory that books sometimes need to "ripen," until you are ready for them or vice versa. So when a book doesn't work, but it still feels like something I'd like to read, back it goes on the shelf. Lately, it seems like "the third time is the charm" - as with this book.
I loved The Three Miss Kings, a story of orphaned sisters who use their small inheritance to move to Melbourne, looking for life beyond their small village. It reminded me of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. There is a fairy-tale element in the way they find a sponsor to introduce them to Society, but to balance that there are more serious considerations of social issues, religious faith, and marriage. A Marked Man is a very different story, a portrait of a marriage that never should have happened, which endures, but at a great cost. According to the edition I read, a modern reprint in the Australian Women Writers series, this 1890 novel is considered Ada Cambridge's greatest work.
There may be mild spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs. There is a big one further down, which is marked as such. Don't miss the sharks, in the unspoilery paragraph after that! The author includes spoilers in her story, by the way, little asides that tell you something of what's coming for her characters.
The "marked man" of the title is Richard Delavel, the third son of the squire of Dunstanborough, a village on the northeastern coast of England. As the story opens, he has returned home from Oxford for the long vacation, in disgrace. He has failed to take his degree, but even worse, he has refused to enter the Church, despite his father's long-standing plans for him. He knows himself unsuitable and unfit for ministry, and he will not be a hypocrite or a place-holder. His parents cannot understand his position, nor can his cousin Max Delavel-Pole, who holds the family living at Dunstanborough. Dicky goes to call on Max one morning, just as Matins are finishing, and there he sees a young woman, Annie Morrison, the daughter of a tenant farmer. At loose ends, with nothing to do, and emotionally vulnerable, he falls in love with her. He proposes after just two meetings, encouraged by her mother and brother, who want to be sure the squire's son isn't just trifling with a pretty girl. Annie is overwhelmed by the attention from Mr. Richard; she has visions of becoming the wife of a clergyman, the daughter-in-law of the Squire. She cannot accept that Dicky will not enter the Church, any more than his father can. Even after their clandestine marriage in London, she still tries to convince him that it is his duty, and he should do it to please her. His father naturally disowns him when he learns of the marriage, though a small olive branch is extended. If Dicky will accept ordination, the family will find him a quiet parish far away from Dunstanborough, where his wife will not disgrace the family. Refusing this offer, Dicky resolves to sail for Australia and a fresh start. But Annie refuses to go with him. She prefers to wait in England until he has a home ready for her.
I had expected that this would be about emigrating and making a new life in Australia, a Victorian Nevil Shute story. Instead, the story then jumps ahead twenty-five years. Mr. and Mrs. Delavel are now living in a luxurious home in Sydney, where Richard has built a successful shipping business. They have a twenty-year-old daughter, Susan, whom Annie is determined to marry into a family worthy of the Delavels, preferably one with a title. Sue, more her father's daughter, falls in love with Noel Rutledge. Once a rising young clergyman, he suffered a crisis of conscience and left the priesthood, which makes him anathema to Annie Delavel. He is also poor, scraping by as a writer for the newspapers. Richard sees something of himself in the young man, but while he is sympathetic, he warns his daughter against rushing into marriage. Though a perceptive and loving young woman, Sue has no idea of the reality behind her parents' marriage. Nor does she know what happened in the years that her father spent in Australia before her mother joined him. Reading this, I learned her father's secrets as Sue does, but because I knew her parents' story, I had a perspective that Sue lacks. Ada Cambridge structured her story very skillfully. My sympathies were always with Richard, but I understood Annie as well. They were young, carried away by emotions and hormones, encouraged on the one hand by Annie's star-struck family. Richard's family, on the other hand, simply issued fiats and expected obedience. Wise and loving counsel could have saved them both from a misalliance, an unhappy marriage, but there was no one to offer it in time. Actually, Annie doesn't even seem to realize it is a mistake. My heart broke for Richard, who sees it all too clearly on the very day of their marriage.
Anyone who wants to discover Richard's secrets for her/himself should skip the next paragraph.
Reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1890. I see from the introduction that it got very positive reviews, both in Australia and beyond. I found myself wondering if there was any criticism of the book - at the time - on moral grounds. We learn, with Sue, that during the years her father was first in Australia, alone, he fell in love with a young woman, Constance, who nursed him through a dangerous illness and fell in love in her turn. She did not know at the time that he was married - a secret he kept from her - and when she learned of it, she tried to give him up. Their feelings were so strong, however, that eventually she felt she had to leave Australia for England, to put that distance between them. Unknown to him, she has now returned to Sydney, and Sue meets her one day, not knowing who she is. From Sue's casual description of her, Richard realizes it might be his lost love. He actually takes his daughter out to look for her, and later sends her with a message to Constance. Even from my 21st-century perspective, I found that a bit shocking! Both Constance and Richard are quick to assure Sue that they broke no vows, that theirs was an affair of the heart only - which isn't much of a consolation to her. It takes her time to understand just how badly her father has suffered, in his marriage and in the loss of Constance, and she brings that knowledge to her love for Noel Rutledge. It is really an extraordinary exploration of marriage, particularly from a Victorian writer - and the wife of an Anglican minister, no less.
(End of serious spoiler)
This book feels very grounded in its Sydney setting, which for me at least felt more real than Dunstanborough. The Delavels' home, on Darling Point, sounds absolutely charming, with verandas and terraces leading down to the sea. I was tickled to read that it includes a bathing house for Sue, a "stone-walled basin at the bottom of the garden which gave her room to swim in, protected from sharks by an iron grating, through which they occasionally peered longingly at her. . ." The family also has a rustic camp in Middle Harbour, where Richard often escapes his unhappiness at home. Sue loves being there too, but Annie not only refuses to go but tries to keep Sue from going. And Sue gets into trouble with her mother, for the freedom with which she rides buses over the city and wanders around on her own - as no proper young woman should do, let alone a Delavel and an heiress. (Like Mrs. Churchill in Emma, she has out-Delavel'd the Delavels, and no one in Sydney has any idea she started life as a tenant farmer's daughter.)
The editor of this edition, Debra Adelaide, writes in her introduction of "the wearisome truth of a certain familiar pattern: like countless women writers before or since, Ada Cambridge's substantial contribution to her country's literature has been overlooked." She goes on to say that Cambridge has "until recent years, been largely ignored, unread, buried in libraries and out of print." Unfortunately, her books are again out of print, though copies of the Virago edition of The Three Miss Kings are available on-line. Fortunately, like many other Victorian women writers, at least some of her books are now available as e-texts. I had already downloaded a copy of her autobiography, Thirty Years in Australia (1903). I will also be looking for a copy of The Eternal Feminine from 1907, which features Esther, "medical student and sometime champion of the rights of women."