I have wanted to read one of Mrs Craik’s novels ever since I read her Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall, a wonderful travelogue that made me like her enormously. It has taken quite some time, because all of her books – except one or maybe two that are available print-on-demand – are long out of print and I have never come across a single one of them.
My 100 Years of Books project led me to this one, when I was looking for something interesting to fill one of the trickiest early years. It was a title I had never seen mentioned, but I liked the sound of it, I liked the look at it, and when I saw that the Project Gutenberg edition had illustrations by Walter Crane I knew that I had started reading for a reason.
The story opens when Agatha is a wealthy young woman who has good friends but no family. Her guardian is a friend of her late father, a military man who is posted overseas, and Agatha has made an arrangement whereby she rents a suite of room from a friendly family. It is an arrangement that suits her very well, because she is always welcome to be part of family life but the family understands that sometimes she wishes to spend time alone or with her friends in her own space.
The ladies in Agatha’s social circle are eager to find her a husband, but Agatha appears uninterested; playing with her kitten while the mull over the possibilities, and insisting that she loves her independence and that she really is in no hurry to change things.
I warmed to Agatha immediately, loving that she was warm, open, impulsive, articulate and self-aware. At the age of nineteen she was a child in some ways and an adult in others.
She meant what she said. She did enjoy her independence, but she knew that she didn’t want to be alone forever and that she didn’t want to live with the restrictions that she knew society placed on single women forever either. She didn’t tell them that because she wanted to wait for the right man, the man that she could be happy with for the rest of her life; and she didn’t think those ladies would be at all helpful in finding him.
Never any but fools have ever made love to me! Oh, if an honest, noble man did but love me, and I could marry, and get out of this friendless desolation, this contemptible, scheming, match-making set, where I and my feelings are talked of, speculated on, bandied about from house to house. It is horrible—horrible! But I’ll not cry! No!
When her guardian came home to visit he was concerned that Agatha was smitten with him. She wasn’t at all, but she was captivated by his younger brother, who she had met for the first time as he had lived with his uncle in America from a very young age. Her feelings were reciprocated, a proposal was made and accepted, and as Agatha had no family they agreed to have a quiet wedding in London.
The wedding itself raised several questions:
- Why did none of the bridegroom’s family, who all sent warm and welcoming letters to the bride, travel to town for the ceremony?
- Why was Agatha’s guardian – who was also the bridegroom’s brother – terribly late and in a dreadful temper?
- And who was Anne Valery? Agatha learned that she was no relation, and yet she was spoken of as if she was the most important and most beloved member of the family?
All of those questions would be answered in the story that played out when the newlyweds went to stay with the family while they looked for a home of their own in the same part of the world.
Agatha’s new father-in-law , the local squire, was a widower, and the father of two sons and four daughters. He welcomed her warmly, and considered himself to have been blessed with a fifth daughter. She loved that!
Her four new sisters were just as happy to meet her. One was a married woman who lived in the nearest town; one was a quiet bookish girl who was happy to stay at home; one was vivacious and eager to be the family’s next bride; and one was an invalid, frail but appreciative of the great care that her family gave her. They were a lovely group – diverse but united!
Agatha was anxious about Anne Valery, fearing a rival, but when they met she found that she was an older lady and she quickly came to understand why her in-laws thought so much of her and involved her so much in their family life; though she didn’t understand how that had come to be and didn’t see a way to find out.
The newlyweds were very much in love and very happy – until the time came to establish their own home. Agatha found a lovely house but her husband refused to consider it as it was beyond his means. He absolutely refused to use her fortune. Agatha was bitterly disappointed, she didn’t understand why her husband wasn’t even prepared to discuss the matter, and then he left in the middle of the night, called away on urgent business.
Agatha felt terribly alone, because this was one thing she couldn’t talk about with her in-laws.
That was just the beginning a grand drama, that would draw in every character, answer all of those questions that the wedding and subsequent events had raised, and bring old family secrets to light ….
Mrs. Craik wrote well, and she was very good at characters and relationships; and her portrayal of Agatha’s situation before her marriage, her entry into her new family and the start of her marriage were particularly well done.
I was held by Agatha’s side and I always empathised with her.
BUT though the plot was well constructed, it was poorly paced, the ending was abrupt, there were moments that were too sentimental or too melodramatic; and the heroine was allowed to dominate in situations where she really shouldn’t have.
I am inclined to agree with George Eliot, who described the author as:
…. a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture ….
I will happily reread her Cornish travelogue, but as there are so many more books in the world now that there were in 1852 I am in no hurry to seek out more of her novels.