Hester – Margaret Oliphant
We’re reading this for my Victorian book group – I did finally make it to the end, but not in time for the meeting! It is not as long as some of the novels we have read (Bleak House, Little Dorrit), but I still struggled to get to the end. Not because it was difficult to read, it was easy to read, but it needed editing (a lot of editing!).
Here is the blurb …
Hester tells the story of the aging but powerful Catherine Vernon, and her conflict with the young and determined Hester, whose growing attachment to Edward, Catherine’s favorite, spells disaster for all concerned. Catherine Vernon, jilted in her youth, has risen to power in a man’s world as head of the family bank. She thinks she sees through everyone and rules over a family of dependents with knowing cynicism. But there are two people in Redborough who resist her. One is Hester, a young relation with a personality as strong as Catherine’s, and as determined to find a role for herself. The other is Edward, who Catherine treats like a son. Conflict between the young and the old is inevitable, and in its depiction of the complex relationships that develop between the three principal characters, Hester is a masterpiece of psychological realism. In exploring the difficulty of understanding human nature, it is also a compulsive story of financial and sexual risk-taking that inevitably results in a searing climax.
When I try to write what this novel is about I am overwhelmed with possibilities – the role of women, the mother/child relationship, financial speculation, dependence and independence and there is a large cast of characters to highlight all types. Hester and Catherine both strong-willed women who want to take charge of their own destinies – Catherine because she is wealthy achieves this, but even she thinks it would be better for Hester to marry than work, Edward – who at first seems so steady and then risks everything (well other people’s everything) in risky financial speculation, Emma who wants ‘her chance’ (that is the chance to find a husband), Ellen flighty and extravagant, Mrs John (Hester’s mother) who is gentle, loving, but dim-witted, Roland Ashton charismatic and the catalyst for Edward’s speculation, and finally the malicious tenants of the Vernonry.
Nothing about this novel feels forced or contrived. I was never jolted out of the story and reminded that I was reading a novel. It would make a great BBC adaptation.
I think most modern readers would struggle to finish this novel. There is a lot of internal dialogue – there is a whole chapter where Hester wonders if Edward loves her and if she loves him and no one is any the wiser at the end! A good prune and this novel would be exciting as well as insightful. However, fans of George Eliot and Dickens should really give this one a go after all it’s only five hundred pages rather than a thousand!
Here is a link to the Margaret Oliphant page at Victorianweb.