The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell, begins with a lengthy and beautifully detailed description of the countryside location of the cottage where Maggie Browne and her brother, Edward, grew up. Before you meet the characters in this story, you walk into their world along a country path. By the time you arrive at their moorland cottage, you have a very clear idea of their place in the world.
If you take the turn to the left, after you pass the lyke-gate at Combehurst Church, you will come to the wooden bridge over the brook; keep along the field-path which mounts higher and higher, and, in half a mile or so, you will be in a breezy upland field, almost large enough to be called a down, where sheep pasture on the short, fine, elastic turf. You look down on Combehurst and its beautiful church-spire. After the field is crossed, you come to a common, richly colored with the golden gorse and the purple heather, which in summer-time send out their warm scents into the quiet air. The swelling waves of the upland make a near horizon against the sky; the line is only broken in one place by a small grove of Scotch firs, which always look black and shadowed even at mid-day, when all the rest of the landscape seems bathed in sunlight…
…With something like the sudden drop of the lark, the path goes down a green abrupt descent; and in a basin, surrounded by the grassy hills, there stands a dwelling, which is neither cottage nor house, but something between the two in size. Nor yet is it a farm, though surrounded by living things. It is, or rather it was, at the time of which I speak, the dwelling of Mrs. Browne, the widow of the late curate of Combehurst.
Mrs. Browne is a grieving widow. Her daughter, Maggie is a gentle, kind soul, while her son, Edward, is a coddled, cowardly and cruel boy. Mrs. Browne dotes on her son while treating Maggie as a subservient, worthless female. Maggie’s is a cruel and harsh upbringing, but there is a strength in her that remains undamaged by the harsh conditions of her childhood. Her gentle spirit is recognized and appreciated by others, and in particular by another family, the Buxtons, friends of her late father. The Buxtons are well-to-do and privileged neighbors. The story is really about these two families, their likes and differences, and their connections over time.
I wasn’t sure at first if I would like this book very much, but I was quickly captured by Maggie’s kind spirit and her resiliency. The view of women’s lives through the lens of Mrs. Gaskell’s writing is sobering. Women had few rights. Men provided the living for the family and controlled all the money. If the head of the household was not a good provider (or a good human being), that living could be very difficult for the women. Most woman of Maggie’s class were not educated and often the big life decisions (who to marry, in particular) were made for them by the male(s) in charge.
Although it was hard to hear the stories of Maggie’s childhood and the inequality and cruelty with which she was treated by her mother and brother, I totally loved the core of strength that Maggie had that kept her kind and hopeful despite the meanness of her situation. And I loved the woman she became over time, thanks to the loving care of the family servant, Nancy, and the kind connections to the Buxton family.
From the publisher:
Growing up in Yorkshire, the daughter of a deceased clergyman, Maggie Browne is encouraged to devote herself to her brother, Edward, upon whom their widowed mother dotes. Through the example and guidance of her mentor, Mrs Buxton, Maggie learns that self-sacrifice is the key to living a fulfilled life. How much personal happiness will she forgo in the name of duty and devotion to her brother? This novella depicts the struggle of a strong-minded Victorian woman, torn between her dreams and her duty towards her family.
I ended up loving this little book that told the story of a young girl who became a lovely young woman despite living in a time and culture that did not value women very highly. But in the language of today, “she persisted!” I haven’t read very much by Elizabeth Gaskell, but I’m going to remedy that and enjoy more of her work.