Nancy, Rhoda Broughton
This is the fourth of Rhoda Broughton's novels that I have read. I found the last one, Cometh Up as a Flower, so bleak that I was in no hurry to get to the two that I still had on the TBR stacks. But in checking the shelves for books that fit my "Mid-Century of Books" project, I noticed that this one, published in 1873, opens with the six children of the Grey family making toffee in the school-room. That sounded like a promising beginning, perhaps to an Alcott-like story.
At the time, I didn't read far enough to discover that, while they are in the school-room, five of the six are actually young adults. Nancy, who narrates the story (in the present tense), is 19, with two siblings above her and three coming after. "There are no two of us, I am proud to say, exactly simultaneous, but we have come tumbling on each other's heels into the world in so hot a hurry that we evidently expected to find it a pleasant place when we got there." Though I found the present-tense narration distracting at the start, I was immediately taken with Nancy's breezy, confidential voice, and with the chaff and jokes that fly between the siblings, sometimes cruelly.
I knew nothing of the plot of this book when I started it, and I enjoyed discovering the story. I did cheat about a third of the way through, and read the last chapter, in case I needed to brace myself for a traumatic ending. Just a warning, for those who would like to discover the story on their own: there will be spoilers below. I guess it's because I like to chew over books that I don't seem to be able to write about them without spoilers.
Just as the toffee is poured out to cool, their mother arrives to tell them that their father's friend Sir Roger Tempest is coming to stay. The young people make a great many jokes about the visitor's advanced age and the possibility that he might adopt one or another of them. But when Sir Roger shows an interest in one of them, it isn't adoption that he has in mind. Nancy is as astonished as her siblings to learn that he has offered for her - and the reactions of her siblings (except the saintly Barbara) are hilarious. She is reminded constantly that he is forty-seven, to her nineteen, and that he was at school with her father. Nancy, proverbial in the family for her frankness, can't help mentioning those points herself from time to time to Sir Roger, who is embarrassed but persevering. In the end, she accepts him, because she likes him, and because she wants to get away from her father, whose cold angry sarcasm makes life miserable for his wife and children. He is one of those domestic martinets with a sociable and cheerful face for outsiders, who think him a perfect father and husband. I know someone with a father like that, and she got so very tired of people telling her how lucky she was to have such a great dad.
So Nancy marries her father's friend, though it almost breaks her heart to leave her mother and siblings. Naive and unsophisticated, she finds it difficult to adjust to married life, and she feels isolated and bored, separated for the first time from her boisterous family. She and Sir Roger have hardly returned from their honeymoon when he announces that he must go to the West Indies to deal with business concerns there. Since Nancy cannot face the long voyage, he reluctantly leaves her at her new home, his estate of Tempest. Her siblings join her there for visits, and she hopes to make a match between Barbara and their nearest neighbor, Francis Musgrave. She doesn't seem to notice that he pays much more attention to her than to her sister, though others do. At the same time, Nancy meets another neighbor, Mrs. Huntley, who she learns from Mr. Musgrave was Sir Roger's first choice for a wife, many years ago. Nancy, who is learning to care more about her husband in his absence, can't help but feel some jealousy, which is made even worse when her brother Algy falls victim to Mrs. Huntley's charms. When Sir Roger returns, it is to rumors about his wife and Mr. Musgrave, while Nancy cannot restrain herself from accusations about Mrs. Huntley. Their relationship cracks under the strain, though as the husband reminds his wife more than once, they are tied together until death.
I thought this was an interesting study of a marriage, the May-December type so frequent in Victorian novels. Despite its serious elements, including the death on one character, it is not a depressing story, in part because of the liveliness of Nancy's narrative voice, and of her siblings. I found both Nancy and Sir Roger very sympathetic characters. Broughton manages to convey Nancy's innocence and essential goodness, but her immaturity and lack of awareness as well, so that the reader sees much more than she does. This story is also a romance, one that develops slowly, with the protagonists separated for at least half the book. It's clear that Sir Roger is smitten with Nancy from the moment he meets her, and he is soon deep in love. He marries her knowing that she doesn't love him, and he is almost afraid to believe that she could come to care for him, especially with the handsome young Mr. Musgrave hanging around. He is rather humble about it all, at least until jealousy makes such trouble between them.
I was surprised at one element of the story: I expected Nancy to come back pregnant from her honeymoon, or to discover she is expecting after Sir Roger leaves on his trip, but there is no mention of children, even at the end. When I thought about it, I realized that is true for all the heroines in Broughton's books that I've read so far - none of the married women has children, at least in the course of the stories. This seems unusual for a Victorian novel. After all, Nancy's mother was continuously pregnant for the first five or six years of her marriage, and she had an unexpected later child as well. Yet Nancy like Broughton's other heroines is quite open about expressing her growing love physically, by throwing herself into Roger's arms, kissing him, and sitting in his embrace with her head on his shoulder.
I really enjoyed this story, with its mix of comedy, romance, and domestic drama. I still have Red As a Rose Is She on the TBR stacks, and it will be interesting to see where it falls on the spectrum of Rhoda Broughton's books. I saw one reference to it as an attack on "ludicrous Victorian propriety," which sounds promising.