“Have you among your story books Mrs. Woodlands Tales, let me my dear child recommend them to you.”
-- Southern gentlewoman Mary Telfair, in a letter to a friend, 1827
This book, and others, argued that being yielding and sweet-tempered was not only the best course for society and for your family, but also for you. Conduct books suggested that you would have more influence over your husband if you were sweet-tempered and obliging, not cross and demanding. In the opening of Bear and Forbear, we have this advice: “Nothing is more conducive to female happiness, or more certain to insure the affection of those with whom we live, than a yielding forbearing temper. It not only produces that harmony which is so desirable in families, but teaches fortitude and patience; two qualities which cannot be too highly estimated, and which young women cannot too assiduously cultivate.”
We might object that continually biting one’s tongue, or suffering, as Fanny Price does, under the tongue lashes of her Aunt Norris, is not exactly what anyone should call family “harmony."...
In The Denial, or the Happy Retreat (1792), the tyrannical Lord Wilton is impatient and dismissive of his wife and their marriage is loveless. Lady Wilton “for many years, under patience and humility, [bore] with meekness the insulting tone of obstinacy… She vainly hoped, that such gentle and endearing behaviour would in time soften and meliorate a disposition long known to be callous and obdurate… She has hitherto failed; yet she still perseveres, from her high sense of duty… This does not proceed from passiveness, timidity, want of resolution, or defect of understanding, but from the purest of all motives, a wish to preserve domestic peace and tranquility.”
Likewise, in Bear and Forbear, we are told that “Julia Marchmont… had acquired what is most engaging in woman, a yielding temper and a spirit of forbearance, which being regulated by an excellent understanding, did not degenerate into weakness.”
Julia comes from a respectable middle-class family. The focus in the opening section of the book is on the education Julia receives from her parents. Unlike the Bertram girls in Mansfield Park, she receives a good moral education and learns habits of self-command. The author contrasts young Julia with her spoilt little cousin Maude, who throws temper tantrums. Maude, weakened by the rich and improper diet she's allowed to eat, dies of the measles.
At eighteen, Julia is accomplished, sweet-tempered, vivacious, and intelligent. She has the good luck to captivate a baronet, Sir Owen Fitz-Ellard, who, we are told, is intelligent and benevolent, though "of an impatient temper."
As she begins her married life, Julia’s father advises her: “The wife who values her husband’s or her own happiness will always keep this in her recollection; she will bear and forbear! And such a wife acquires a lasting empire over the mind of her husband, and sets a bright example to her sex.” Dad adds that Sir Owen “is an excellent man” who “has an irascible, but not a stern or despotic temper. Soothe his moments of impatience with that gentleness so lovely in your sex, particularly in a wife….”
After the honeymoon, Sir Owen’s imperious old grandmother summons him to keep her company at “Lewellen Castle” in Wales. Just as an aside here, in novels of the long eighteenth century, Wales is an exotic destination. I think the reason the author chose Wales for the story is to set up a scenario where Julia goes far away from her parents to the back of beyond. This isolation helps to set up the story of her sufferings.
Grandma is something of a Lady Catherine De Burgh. She thinks her grandson married beneath him: “the dowager viewed her with ill-will, amounting almost to dislike... she must expect to meet continual mortification while she remained at Lewellen Castle.” But Julia resolves not to complain to her husband or to her own parents by letter, and behaves respectfully toward the old lady. Julia did not “wish to create the slightest dispute or coldness between her beloved husband and his family.”
Julia is gradually winning over the dowager’s good opinion, when some cynical snobbish, cousins of Sir Owen, a brother and sister, come for a long visit. They are curious about the new bride: Sir Tudor is offended that Sir Owen did not marry his sister Jessica: “What! prefer a girl who in beauty, birth, and even fortune, was inferior to his sister? Prefer the alliance of plain Mr. Marchmont to that of Sir Tudor Fitz-Ellard his own relation, and whose family was at least equally ancient?... The girl must have been an artful creature, who had inveigled the baronet into marriage; and she would soon, no doubt, give him cause to repent.”
The cousinly brother and sister sneer at Julia and succeed in planting suspicions into the mind of Sir Owen (because he is an idiot.) Sir Owen accuses her of not liking his relatives. She meekly takes his criticism and promises to “pay them more attention than ever she had done.”
Julia “suffered cruelly in secret” but “very prudently forbore to confide her sorrows even to her beloved parents; for they had taught her to feel, that nothing is so odious in a wife, as to make her domestic vexations or the faults of her husband the theme of complaint; nor is any thing so destructive to her happiness.”
“I declare, cousin,” said Jessica, affecting to smile, “If Lady Fitz-Owen were not so sensible a woman, and so sweet tempered, I should really be inclined to think she was jealous, and had purposely hid the toothpick case, to punish you for being so attached to the memory of the amiable Agnes.”
Sir Owen (who, let's remember, is an idiot and a jerk), “began to think that partiality had hitherto made him blind to the faults of his wife… he now believed that she had taken the toothpick-case. That meekness and yielding sweetness which he had before so warmly admired in Julia, now, through the liberal insinuations of Sir Tudor, appeared to him suspicious, and to be the result of art.”
Sir Owen angrily accuses Julia of being manipulative. “Facts speak for themselves, madam; whether you are jealous or not, you have behaved so as to make yourself and me ridiculous. You must have taken the trinket… You have, with all your affected meekness, played the tyrant too long; you have turned me which way you pleased; but my eyes are now opened…”
In high dudgeon, Sir Owen takes himself off to London to look after some business, leaving Julia with his horrible relatives. “[A]ll she could do would be to suffer his injustice with mild and silent resignation.” She still does not complain to anyone, and faithfully nurses Jessica when she catches a slight cold.
Jessica and Sir Tudor finally leave. The author continues to recommend and praise Julia’s meekness even though the miseries she endured “preyed upon her health” and “threw poor Julia into a fit of illness, which only a strong mind and good constitution could have undergone without the loss of life.”
The old dowager is about to send for a nurse to look after Julia, when Hannah, a faithful servant-girl, cautions her that Julia is raving in her delirium about “Sir Tudor, and Miss Jessica, and my master, and a toothpick-case… that it would break your ladyship’s heart to hear. I would not have mentioned this to any living soul, had not your ladyship wanted to send for strangers, and so I thought I had better tell your ladyship the truth, than suffer the concerns of my dear lady and Sir Owen to be talked of by every body.” In this way the grandmother begins to learn how Julia has been suffering.
“Good god!” exclaimed the baronet… “I now remember… Rash fool that I was!” He promptly blames his cousins, not himself: “why did Sir Tudor and his sister make me believe that my wife must have it, when they saw how angry it made me? Why did they interfere to do mischief?”
“Why, if I might be so bold as to speak without giving offence, I could tell your Honour something that would surprise you, Sir…” says “honest Gregory,” who forbears to add, and what would have been obvious to a five-year-old.
The baronet is dumbfounded when the truth is revealed and sends an abject letter of apology to Wales, but Julia, being on the brink of death, is too sick to read it. When she starts to recover, the dowager, who is now perfectly convinced that Julia is a wonderful girl, writes to Sir Owen: “Your amiable Julia… is now informed of your lively repentance…. and she begs me to assure you, that she has not a moment ceased to love and esteem [you]… the only request she has to make is, that all past troubles may be buried in oblivion, and every body forgiven. There, I must own, I dissent from her.”
Sir Owen gets trouble-making Sir Tudor a government posting out of the country and Jessica finds a husband—although, the narrator assures us, “they were not truly happy.”
So the moral of the story is, bear and forbear even if it almost kills you.
Who would write or publish such an over-the-top story? The answer might surprise you. Next post.
Yes, Jane Austen also made use of a toothpick case in Sense & Sensibility, in a comic sequence.
Speaking of family harmony, this is the reason Edmund Bertram gives for giving up his attempts to persuade his brother and sisters to abandon the private theatricals: “Family squabbling is the greatest evil of all, and we had better do anything than be altogether by the ears.”
The denouement of Bear and Forebear relies upon disclosures made by servants. Servants tend to play lesser roles in Austen, and people who chat with or about servants are vulgar characters in Austen, as discussed in this earlier series of posts.
Franco Moretti in his Atlas of the European Novel (1998) maps the locations of all the scenes in Austen's novels (apart from mentions of places like Ireland or Antigua) and shows that she never strayed very far: “a pattern does indeed emerge here of exclusion, first of all. No Ireland, no Scotland no Wales; no Cornwall. No ‘Celtic fringe,’… only England… And not even all of England: Lancashire, the North, the industrial revolution—all missing.”
Young men were also advised to bear and forbear, as in this 1870 Christian novel: Bear and Forebear, or, the Young Skipper of Lake Ucayga.