It was probably not a good idea to read Colm Tóibín’s recently published Nora Webster immediately after finishing Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. My impatience with the former novel was further compounded by reading Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton first published in 1848. Mary Costello’s Academy Street which, like Tóibín’s novel, appeared in 2014 somewhat restored my sympathy with the twentyfirst century fictional heroine.
Gaskell’s heroine serves as a device to illustrate the horrors of industrial revolution Manchester. Will Mary Barton be seduced by her wealthy admirer? Will she survive? Will she have enough to eat? Will she end up on the streets like her Aunt Esther? These are the questions that preoccupy us as we are carried along by Gaskell’s narrative. This book should be read by history students of all ages. It conveys the grim realities of those times better than any history text.
Brontë’s Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, is of a different kind. Blessed with an education unattainable to the likes of Mary Barton and a character and intellect which endeared her to many of those she encountered, she is, nevertheless, cast upon the world without family or funds and must forage for herself in the best tradition of the bildungsroman.
Mary Costello’s novel is well researched resulting in a wonderful sense of time and place as we follow the heroine, Tess, from Ireland to America. There is a cinematographic feel to the novel. It is as if we are following Tess from a short distance. We do not get inside her head but we watch her every move in such a way that we identify with her. Her patience and stoicism are impressive.
Then, there is Nora Webster. The author explores her character forensically. She is a recent widow. We are invited to pity her. Try as I can I just cannot feel sorry for her. She is not a nice woman. There was a reference to a time when she was cruel to a contemporary in her youth. This comes back to bite her when she encounters the same woman in the course of the employment she is forced to take up in her widowhood. She is short with people. She demolishes her younger son’s school principal. There had to be a more diplomatic way to fight the boy’s corner one feels. You wouldn’t have wanted Nora Webster in your class in school. You wouldn’t have wanted her as a sister-in-law or a colleague. The main merit in this book is as a guide to music. Nora takes an interest in classical music which puts her on the road to recovery from the shock of her husband’s death. There is a wonderfully detailed account of her growing appreciation of music. I might even use it myself as a handbook to smarten myself up on the works of various composers. Nora lives in Enniscorthy. The town is recognisable but the sense of realism breaks down when Nora and her daughters go shopping in Dublin. In the late sixties. On a Saturday afternoon. I laughed out loud. Grafton Street was like a morgue after 1PM on a Saturday in those days. All shops were closed. Mary Costello is better on the accuracy of period detail.
Nora Webster is what they call nowadays ‘feisty’. We observe her growing in feistiness. Both Tess and Mary Barton are carried along by circumstance. Mary has lucky breaks, if one can call them breaks in 1848. Tess endures and arrives at the shores of calm.
Nora Webster enjoyed all the prestige of wifehood and, what is often overlooked, the prestige and sympathy attached to widowhood. She did not go hungry like Mary Barton. She did not have to conceal a side of her life like Tess. Nora Webster got to go to the races. She was even in the winners’ enclosure on four occasions in the sense that she had four intelligent, handsome children. She is not totally without funds. Mary Barton, Tess and Lucy Snowe struggle to get through the turnstiles. Alone. Theirs is an aloneness of which Nora Webster knew nothing in her own youth.
Of the four novels only Villette is written in the first person which probably goes some way to explaining why Lucy engages our sympathy the most. Her brand of feistiness has no truck with rudeness or sour provincial snappery. She is a survivor against all the odds through the power of her intellect. We’ll leave the last word to her.
“How I pity those whom mental pain stuns instead of rousing.”
I am adding Villette to my list of books to be re-read when I am in the nursing home.