"Hey, this isn't bad" is probably not anyone's idea of high praise, but given the soul-searching frequently inspired by my usual reading--as in, "why am I doing this to myself?"--Adeline Sergeant's relatively sophisticated The Surrender of Margaret Bellarmine: A Fragment (1892) was a pleasant surprise. Sergeant (d. 1904) appears to have been less a religious novelist than a novelist who often wrote on religious themes, and what I've seen so far of her work draws on sensationalism, New Woman literature, the detective novel, and romance. Her biographical sketch in Helen C. Black's Notable Women Authors of the Day (1906) lists authors like Henry James, George Eliot, and Gustave Flaubert among her favorites (167), and one can feel their influence in Sergeant's attempt to balance her conventional didactic lesson (self-sacrifice! it's a good thing!) with her less conventional attention to the narrator's frustrated maternal and erotic desires. Surrender's romance plot is in dialogue with several more famous predecessors, and indeed we might think of the book as the heroine's quest in search of an appropriate plot. (It's no wonder that the book is a "fragment.")
Margaret's first plot is the May-December romance, so beloved (or loathed) by Victorian novelists. The novel begins with our formerly Anglo-Catholic heroine, Margaret, reduced to despair: as a teenager, her devout parents married her off to the elegant and much older Sir Edward Bellarmine, who believed that "agnosticism meant virtue and strength and noble fortitude" (10). Although she does not love Edward, she does her "duty" (37) in marrying him, but soon finds him given to "inveterate jealousy" (38); he insists on giving her a "complete training in metaphysics and philosophy" (39) designed to remake her mind in his own image, and to detach her completely from her religious roots. The dynamics here echo, although they do not replicate, Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon in Eliot's Middlemarch, Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond in James' Portrait of a Lady, and Belinda and Professor Forth in Rhoda Broughton's Belinda. (And behind all this, there may well be yet another echo of Mark Pattison's relationship to Emily Francis Strong.) The marriage proves literally and figuratively infertile, soon declining into a "polite frigidity" (48) that leaves Margaret childless and sexually unfulfilled. All brain and no body, Edward leaves the passionate Margaret no outlet except for a secret, successful career as a poet writing under the pseudonym of "Erica Vane." As the Casaubon/Osmond/Forth figure, Edward seeks to transform his wife into not just property, but even more, into an asexual extension of his own whims and needs; Margaret's confessional poetry, which soon becomes part of an independent persona, both resists Edward's mind-control and safely compartmentalizes that resistance. The reader expects that after Edward dies, then, Margaret will enjoy, or at least come near, something that looks like a grand passion. And so she does! Or does she?
The sexless Edward meets his match in the all sex, all the time Victor Dayrolles. Early on, Victor is banished from Margaret's home for Undisclosed Yet Serious Reasons, but before he goes, he wildly kisses Margaret in a garden (hmmm, I detect symbolism)--a moment that marks her soon-to-be-frustrated sexual awakening. We are therefore primed to interpret Victor as the True Love (right age, her sexual match) to whom Margaret will obviously return once the Inappropriate Husband (too old, no sex) departs this earth--the Will Ladislaw to Margaret's Dorothea. And besides, the man's name is Victor, right? On cue, Victor reappears once Margaret has been widowed, yet Margaret seems to have competition for Victor's interest in the form of a New Woman named Constance Pilkington, a tennis champion (!) who is up on her Ibsen. Over the next few chapters, Margaret will react to Constance (another suspiciously symbolic name) with a sense of "a slight but distinct repulsion" (90) that indexes not Constance's true nature, but Margaret's own moral blinkers. For on meeting Victor again, Margaret finds herself "awake" all night, "tossing to and fro upon my bed" (76), and her lust (that is, after all, pretty much what it is) corrupts her vision. It also corrupts her reasoning abilities, apparently, given the quickness with which she manages to overcome a Minor Detail: Victor explains that Margaret's father had chucked him out of the house because "I had married 'beneath me'" (80). Oh, dear--that romantic smooch in the rose garden was an adulterous one. (This is a rather George Gissing-esque revelation.) Margaret, being in lust--er, love--not only forgives him, but wallows in grand passion. "If once I loved, what matter what the man's past life had been," she declares to herself, scorning Constance's greater prudence, "if he but loved me in return?" (97) "Still, strike one," says the reader.
Margaret's problem, one might say, is that having exited Middlemarch/Portrait of a Lady/Belinda, she nows believes herself ensconced in Jane Eyre. (There's an honest-to-goodness-lifted-from-Jane Eyre moment towards the end, which I'll discuss in a bit.) Her passion for Victor, she is convinced, is of a Grand and Earth-Shattering nature, one that elevates romance above merely conventional mores (another Jane Eyre echo, albeit more Rochesterian than Janeite). This passion continues even though Victor is engaged to Constance, which surely constitutes a bit of a moral problem. Victor soon convinces Margaret to move to London in order to further her poetic career (a bit of an Aurora Leigh moment, if gender-swapped)--and also, it turns out, in order to make it easier for them to see each other. "Wait," says the reader, "I thought you were engaged." Well, yes, Margaret remembers that too, and once he declares his own Grand Passion, she quite properly gives him his walking papers. ("Good job," says the reader.) Margaret's better nature, though, soon droops under an infusion of Matthew Arnold-cum-Walter Pater-esque reasoning: "was it not the duty of a human being to perfect himself, to bring himself to the highest point of development?" (140) This hyper-individualism, trammeled by no sense of obligation, appears to be what is left of moral reasoning in a godless mind; in fact, Margaret's post-Edward obsession with Victor represents not her repudiation of Edward's secularism, but instead her complete embrace of it. Not surprisingly, then, Margaret asks no questions when Victor assures her that his engagement to Constance has been ended "by mutual consent" (149). ("But her name is Constance," says the puzzled reader.) This allows her to give way to Bronte-esque extremes of passion, in which she declares that "[w]ithout him--without love--life was not worth living" (160). Margaret's unbridled romantic excess, while a reaction from Edward's absolute sexual repression, nevertheless still signifies the effects of agnosticism, which leave her without a divine rule to moderate her idolatry (once again, see Jane Eyre). ("But strike two," says the reader.)
Indeed, Margaret continues to badly misread her own plot. It is Constance who winds up dying, not Margaret, partly from severe illness but partly of sheer heartbreak. As it turns out, Victor neglects to mention that Constance had never actually agreed to end the engagement (raising the threat of a breach of promise suit, although it doesn't happen). Constance's scathing denunciation of Victor--"He is mean: he is a liar and a coward: I never wish to set eyes on him again" (176)--turns Margaret's supposed Rochester figure (remember, Jane still loves Rochester despite the evidence of multiple mistresses and that inconvenient wife in the attic) into an unmanly figure of contempt. And yet, despite Constance's warning that Victor is untrustworthy, an enraged Margaret declares that "even if it were true that he deceived me [...] [e]ven then [...] I should not love him less" (179). Echoing Margaret's own "repulsion" from Constance, Constance stares at her "repelled and dismayed" (179)--a moral judgment Margaret fails to comprehend. In other words, the novel deconstructs Jane Eyre-ish romantic passion as simultaneously hurtful (to others and oneself) and foolish, an abdication of moral conviction instead of proof of constancy. Understandably, Margaret resists Constance's deathbed message, delivered by the Anglo-Catholic priest Father Clermont, that she must "save Victor's soul" (197), as she seems unaware that his soul needs saving, let alone that there is a soul there to save in the first place.
Nevertheless, Constance's request ultimately propels Margaret into her final plot, in which she abandons both realism in the Eliot/Broughton/James style and romance in the Bronte style for Anglo-Catholic conversion narrative (Charlotte Yonge, perhaps?). Margaret and Victor are on the merge of marriage when, on a visit to her home, she chances to encounter an ailing young woman from the village named Mary Bennell. It turns out that Mary is ailing because...well, after strikes one and two, it should come as no surprise that Victor has been dallying where he should not. Moreover, as a horrified Margaret realizes, "[s]o Victor had been false to his love for me, as well as to his plighted troth to Constance" (219). Far from being redeemed by Margaret's love, Victor has simply demonstrated himself to be an uncontrollable sex-seeker, Edward's opposite in more ways than one. And romancing Mary, much as he once married a woman his social inferior, implies that Victor sees working-class women primarily as sexual toys. Initially resisting her own desire to give up Victor, Margaret channels not Jane Eyre, but Rochester: "Why tie oneself down to the dictates of a morality, which was not divine, but merely the result of centuries of organised self-seeking? Why should I sacrifice a life-long joy for the sake of a scruple about an imaginary virtue?" (222) The third temptation of Margaret, as it were, rests in this relativistic appeal to personal fulfillment instead of communal obligation. But she saves her own soul, in choosing "renunciation" (223): any marriage to Victor would be unavoidably rotted out by the "evil" (224) of which she has become all too conscious, and--worse still--would mean renouncing the very possibility of religious conversion.
It is here that Sergeant lifts directly from Jane Eyre. First, in Margaret's final confrontation with Victor. Here is Sergeant:
"What do you want me to do?" he said.
"You must make Mary your wife. You must make amends."
"Don't you see that it is impossible?"
"Don't you see that it means social extinction, the death of all that makes happiness—culture, harmony, joy in life?"
"Yes, I see all that. It is what happens when one does wrong and has to pay."
"You don't see that these things—loss of happiness and social distinction and so on—"(there was a note of sarcasm in his voice)—" make your plan for me impossible."
"You are telling me to commit suicide, Margaret."
"I cannot help it. This thing is right. We must make amends."
"Even by killing myself?"
I looked up at his scornful face. Then again I seemed moved by bare necessity to say what I did.
"Kill your base lower self," I said. "Then all that is your true self will remain. He that loses his life shall find it—find it—in God." (263-64)
And here is Bronte:
"One instant, Jane. Give one glance to my horrible life when you are gone. All happiness will be torn away with you. What then is left? For a wife I have but the maniac up stairs; as well might you refer me to some corpse in yonder churchyard. What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?"
"Do as I do; trust in God and yourself. Believe in Heaven. Hope to meet again there."
"Then you will not yield?"
"Then you condemn me to live wretched, and to die accursed?" His voice rose.
"I advise you to live sinless; and I wish you to die tranquil."
"Then you snatch love and innocence from me? Yot fling me back on lust for a passion — vice for an occupation?'
"Mr. Rochester, I no more assign this fate to you than I grasp at it for myself. We were born to strive and endure—you as well as I; do so. You will forget me before I forget you."
"You make me a liar by such language; you sully my honor. I declared I could not change! you tell me to my face I shall change soon. And what a distortion in your judgment, what a perversity in your ideas, is proved by your conduct? Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law—no man being injured by the breach? for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me."' (ch. 27)
Sergeant borrows Bronte's distinctive dialogue rhythms (the long exchanges without any tags), along with her themes--the man is self-centered, the woman insists on the need for renunciation and a turn to God. However, Victor is denied Rochester's Gothic visions (the madwoman in the attic, the figurative necrophilia)--he lacks Rochester's flamboyance. (He is, in other words, more obviously a jerk.) Notably, where Rochester tries to cover for his selfishness by invoking the possibility of their future, Victor emphasizes only his own. In a sense, Victor's plot recapitulates Rochester's problems over the course of multiple women: he has married badly, he has betrayed one woman with another (and another, for that matter), and now, he is faced with a woman who opts for God instead of him. However, by replacing Jane Eyre's threatened bigamy plot with the abandoned woman plot, Sergeant refuses to let her Rochester equivalent off the marital hook: Mary Bennell is in bad shape, but still marriageable, and "mak[ing] amends" means true renunciation with no hope of a romantic reunion. Victor complains that this is nothing more than "suicide," but what needs to die is the romance plot in its entirety. Unlike Jane Eyre, where the heroine gets her guy at the end (suitably tamed and minus a few body parts), Surrender warns that there may be no conventional happy ending for her heroine. Indeed, Margaret finds her true comfort in becoming a celibate Lady Bountiful, assisting her aunt's Anglican sisterhood in London and later returning home to help the ailing poor on her own estate.
The novel confirms this alternate plot, in which agape succeeds eros, in its second major reworking of Jane Eyre. After returning to her estate, Margaret "seemed" to hear a call, "Margaret!", which she admits "was but a fancy and a dream; yet, trembling all over and cold with an unspoken fear, I felt myself constrained to answer 'Yes'" (280). But, as she later says to Victor, even though "You called me--and I answered: our souls touched each other, although our bodies were far apart," this means not that they are destined to live together for all eternity, but that "there must be no union at all" (307). Here, Sergeant invokes the miraculous telepathic connection between Rochester and Jane Eyre, then subverts it: although Victor immediately seizes on Margaret's admission in order to insist on their eternal love, there is no sign that he actually "called," and worse still, he stakes his ongoing claim on Margaret while his wife (Mary, as Margaret demanded) is still alive. Despite "atoning" in deed, Victor has not done so in heart; the person on the other end of the figurative telephone, as it were, is the Devil (the remnant of their sinful passion). As I said before, the novel rejects Jane Eyre's ending: renunciation does not mean "renunciation for a little while," or "renunciation until you get better," but simply renunciation, end stop. "God has not told us to love one another," Margaret warns, "and we must listen to His voice" (307). Once she truly renounces Victor to both his wife and to God, she is rewarded with his deathbed conversion--no romantic ending possible--but also with the family she never had, in the form of Mary and Victor's daughter Maisie. In effect, although she never formally enters an Anglican sisterhood, her new household is itself a celibate female community, held together by divine rather than erotic love.