Thursday, August 21, 2014

Theo by Francis Hodgson Burnett

Most of Burnett's romances involve some impediment, usually moral, that prevents the couple from marrying. The stories rarely focus on falling in love, which happens easily, but on love triumphing against all odds. The novella Theo: A Sprightly Love Story is a perfect example of this. Theodora North at first  reminds me of Catherine Morland, whom no one would ever suppose to be a heroine. Here is how Theo's story begins:
A heavy curtain of yellow fog rolled and drifted over the waste of beach, and rolled and drifted over the sea, and beneath the curtain the tide was coming in at Downport, and two pair of eyes were watching it. Both pair of eyes watched it from the same place, namely, from the shabby sitting-room of the shabby residence of David North, Esq., lawyer, and both watched it without any motive, it seemed, unless that the dull gray waves and their dull moaning were not out of accord with the watchers' feelings. One pair of eyes—a youthful, discontented black pair—watched it steadily, never turning away, as their owner stood in the deep, old-fashioned window, with both elbows resting upon the broad sill; but the other pair only glanced up now and then, almost furtively, from the piece of work Miss Pamela North, spinster, held in her slender, needle-worn fingers. 
There had been a long silence in the shabby sitting-room for some time—and there was not often silence there. Three rampant, strong-lunged boys, and as many talkative school-girls, made the house of David North, Esq., rather a questionable paradise. But to-day, being half-holiday, the boys were out on the beach digging miraculous sand-caves, and getting up miraculous piratical battles and excursions with the bare-legged urchins so numerous in the fishermen's huts; and Joanna and Elinor had been absent all day, so the room left to Theo and her elder sister was quiet for once. 
It was Miss Pamela herself who broke the stillness. "Theo," she said, with some elder-sister-like asperity, "it appears to me that you might find something better to do than to stand with your arms folded, as you have been doing for the last half hour. There is a while basketfull of the boys' socks that need mending and —" 
"Pam!" interrupted Theo, desperately, turning over her shoulder a face more like the face of some young Spanish gipsy than that of a poor English solicitor's daughter. "Pam, I should really like to know if life is ever worth having, if eveybody's life is like ours, or if there are really such people as we read of in books." 
"You have been reading some ridiculous novel again," said Pamela, sententiously. "If you would be a little more sensible, and less romantic, Theodora, it would be a great deal better for all of us." 

Theo's lament is answered in the form of a letter from her father's wealthy half-sister, Lady Throckmorton, offering Theo a season in London, as she did Pamela before her. The eldest Miss North shares Cassandra Austen's history: her intended died before they could marry, and she determined on living as a maiden widow. That was several years ago, when the family was better off. Now Mrs. North tell Theo they cannot afford to send her to London, as she has no appropriate attire. It is late that night that the disappointed girl has her dreams granted by dour Pamela, who reveals that she has preserved her entire trousseau from her engagement. A bit of industrious sewing, and Theo is leaving her sad existence behind for life in London.

Two significant things happen immediately upon Theo's arrival. First, it becomes perfectly clear that the girl is a classic Burnett heroine, of regal bearing and exotic flavor:
She stepped before the full-length mirror to look at herself before going down, and as she did so, she was conscious that her waiting-woman was looking at her too in sedate approval. The gray satin was very becoming. Its elaborate richness and length of train changed the undeveloped girl, to whom she had given a farewell glance in the small mirror at Downport, to the stateliest of tall young creatures. Her bare arms and neck were as soft and firm as a baby's; her riant, un-English face seemed all aglow of color and mellow eyes. But for the presence of the maid, she would have uttered a little cry of pleasure, she was so new to herself.
Second, our hero arrives. Mr. Denis Oglethorpe is a talented young writer who has long been engaged to Priscilla Gower, their marriage delayed until he has established himself. Lady Throckmorton, who describes Miss Gower as "a modern Sappho," does not approve of the match, but as Mr. Oglethorpe is now established, a marriage seems imminent. 

Denis doesn't pay particular attention to Theo that first evening (though she plays plenty to him), but he is a good friend of her Ladyship's and regularly visits the house, becoming enamored of Theo so casually that he doesn't realize his danger until it is too late:
He had, perhaps, never given the girl a thought before, unless when chance had thrown them together, and even then his thoughts had been common admiring ones. She had pleased him, and he had tried to amuse her in a careless, well-meant fashion, though he had never made fine speeches to her, as nine men out of ten would have done. He had been so used to Priscilla, that it never occurred to him that a girl so young as this one could be a woman. And, after all, his blindness had not been the result of any frivolous lack of thought. A sharp experience had made him as thoroughly a man of the world as a man may be; but it had not made him callous or indifferent to the beauties of life. No one would ever have called him emotional, or prone to enthusiasms of a weak kind, and yet he was by no means hard of heart. He had quiet fancies of his own about people and things, and many of these reticent, rarely-expressed ideas were reverent, chivalrous ones of women. The opposing force of a whole world could never have shaken his faith in Priscilla Gower, or touched his respect for her; but though, perhaps, he had never understood it so, he had never felt very enthusiastically concerning her. Truly, Priscilla Gower and enthusiasm were not in accordance with each other. Chance had thrown them together when both were very young, and propinquity did the rest. Propinquity is the strongest of agents in a love affair, and in Denis Oglethorpe's love affair, propinquity had accomplished what nothing else would have been likely to have done. The desperate young scribbler of twenty years had been the lodger of the elder Miss Gower, and Priscilla, aged seventeen, had brought in his frugal dinners to him, and receipted his modest bills on their weekly payment.
Priscilla at seventeen, silent, practical, grave and handsome, had, perhaps, softened unconsciously at the sight of his often pale face—he worked so hard and so far into the night; when at length they became friends, Priscilla gravely, and without any hesitation, volunteered to help him. She could copy well and clearly, and he could come into her aunt's room—it would save fires. So she helped him calmly and decorously, bending her almost austerely-handsome young head over his papers for hours on the long winter nights. It is easy to guess how the matter terminated. If ever he won success he determined to give it to Priscilla—and so he told her. He had never wavered in his faith for a second since, though he had encountered many beautiful and womanly women. He had worked steadily for her sake, and shielded her from every care that it lay within his power to lighten. He was not old Miss Elizabeth Gower's lodger now—he was her niece's husband in perspective. He was to marry Priscilla Gower in eight months. This was why Theodora North, in glistening rose-pink satin, sent him home confronting a suddenly-raised spirit of pain. Twice, in one night, he had found himself feeling toward Theodora North as he had never felt toward Priscilla Gower in his life. Twice, in one night, he had turned his eyes upon this girl of sixteen, and suffered a sudden shock of enthusiasm, or something like it. He was startled and discomfited. She had no right to win such admiration from him—he had no right to give it.
So you see our dilemma. Denis, being a worthy hero, determines to forget Theo and flees to the continent until the time of his marriage. Theo, beholden to the whims of Lady Throckmorton, is brought to the continent as well. Again they are thrown together, their love is acknowledged, but they are determined to do what is right:
"Listen to me, Theo," he said. "Let me confess to you; let me tell you the truth for once. I am a coward and a villain. I was a villain to ask a woman I did not truly love to be my wife. I am a coward to shrink from the result of my vanity and madness. She is better than I am—this woman who has promised herself to me; she is stronger, truer, purer; she has loved me, she has been faithful to me; and God knows I honor and revere her. I am not worthy to kiss the ground her feet have trodden upon. I was vain fool enough to think I could make her happy by giving to her all she did not ask for—my life, my work, my strength—not remembering that Heaven had given her the sacred right to more. She has held to our bond for years, and now see how it has ended! I stand here before you to-night, loving you, adoring you, worshipping you, and knowing myself a dishonored man, a weak, proved coward, whose truth is lost forever. 
"I do not ask you for a word. I do not say a word further. I will not perjure myself more deeply. I only say this as a farewell confession. It will be farewell; we shall never see each other again on earth perhaps; and if we do, an impassable gulf will lie between us. I shall go back to England and hasten the marriage if I can; and then, if a whole life's strenuous exertions and constant care and tenderness will wipe out the dishonor my weakness has betrayed me into, it shall be wiped out. I do not say one word of love to you, because I dare not. I only say, forgive me, forget me, and good-by." 
She had listened to him with a terrified light growing in her eyes; but when he finished she got up from her seat, shivering from head to foot. 
"Good-by," she said, and let him take her cold, lithe, trembling hands. But the moment he touched them, his suppressed excitement and her own half-comprehended pain seemed to frighten her, and she began to try to draw them from his grasp. 
"Go away, please," she said, with a wild little sob. "I can't bear it. I don't want to be wicked, and perhaps I have been wicked, too. Miss Gower is better than I am—more worth loving. Oh, try to love her, and—and—only go away now, and let me be alone."
Is that not wonderful? Tragic, I know, but marvelously romantic. I wont reveal the rest of the story, but as indicated at the beginning of this post, love is triumphant.

What I find most interesting about this story is not the heroine. She is beautiful and admirable, but like many of Burnett's creations, she's kind of two dimensional. Denis, because of his more mature reflections on their conflict is more dynamic, but the real stars of this tale are not at all who you would imagine: Pamela and Priscilla. The two ladies are rarely the focus of the story, but their presences so dominate the discourse and both are proven such superior creatures in the end that they commend the reader's devotion. I prefer Burnett's strong, capable heroines (and boy does she have some intense ones), and Pamela and Priscilla are beautiful examples, cut from the same molds as Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood. I think Austen would have liked both ladies immensely.

Theo is available to read online at

My introductory post on Burnett is available here:

Read my other Burnett reviews here:

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