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It had never occurred to me before to make these connections, but this year, just before and just after 29th February, I came across two instances in fiction of women proposing marriage to men. The date made me take note of them, even though I was already familiar with the books they came from. It made me wonder how often this is a plot driver, so my two examples are I hope a starter for a conversation about this.
I had better make it clear right now that this post will be riddled with SPOILERS. In fact, if you don’t want even to know which books I shall be talking about (because you know what the spoiler will be already), please look away now. However, I should also like to make it clear that a woman proposing to a man is not the only, or even the most interesting thing that happens in these novels.
For those who are still with me, first of all some observations on my vanishingly small sample:
– neither proposal explicitly takes place in a Leap Year, let alone on 29th February;
– both proposals are provoked by a crisis in the life of one of the characters;
– neither proposal is couched as, or leads to an archetypal romantic hearts and flowers denouement;
– neither proposal is accepted, but in each case it resolves a dilemma or provides clarity for one or both of the characters;
– both proposals leave angst and distress in their wake.
I’m wondering if this is typical or atypical – I’m very much looking forward to further examples, including some with hearts and flowers and a HEA. I have been trying to think of some more examples, but mulling on the originality of these two has not helped me to come up with any others – but I know when I see some I’ll clap my hand to my brow and cry ‘Of course!’
I’ll start with Anthony Trollope. One of the most engaging characters in his sequence of Palliser novels, about the Great and the Good of Victorian public life, is Phineas Finn, the Irish Member, who has most of two novels to himself. He is a penniless, principled, brilliant young man from Dublin, one of the early beneficiaries of Catholic emancipation. He comes to London to try his chance at politics. His intelligence and ability, along with considerable charm and his not always entirely steady loyalty to the Liberal interest, recommend him to the circle of Plantagenet Palliser, the future Duke of Omnium, and his wife Lady Glencora. He does not have any personal wealth at all, just an allowance from his father, so he is completely dependent on finding a seat in parliament that is in the pocket of someone rich and influential – in this case, he ingratiates himself with the Earl of Brentford. His star continues to rise for some time – and his romantic entanglements make most entertaining reading and are very complicated (there’s a bit of a spoiler in that book cover, if truth be told). He is loved by the Earl’s daughter, Lady Laura, who has to give up her fortune to rescue her brother from ruining the family estate, and therefore must marry a rich man (one of the most tragic marriages in 19th c literature). Timing is everything, and by the time she is free again, Phineas is looking elsewhere. Meanwhile, back in Ireland is his childhood sweetheart Mary Flood Jones (who, at that particular moment, is not where he is looking).
In the Palliser circle appears a mysterious stranger – the young and beautiful widow of a Viennese banker, who has total control of the uncountable riches he left her. Her name is Madame Max Goesler, her given name Marie. She is the soul of honour, but widely distrusted as a foreigner and an independent woman. She is courted with great persistence by the elderly roué Duke of Omnium, first to be his mistress, then his wife. She declines both with such grace that she becomes an indispensable friend to the Duke, to his heir Plantagenet Palliser, and particularly to Lady Glencora. From within that family circle, she forms a strong and confidential friendship with Phineas Finn. Now read on.
Over time, a government decays, an election is pending, and Phineas knows that unless he can establish himself on more solid ground than that of the rocky foundations of the Earl of Brentford he has not got the means for his next campaign to enter parliament to bribe agents and buy electors beer. Apart from that, all the time he knows that when the government falls he must go back to Ireland, and back to Mary Flood Jones, for a particular reason that must remain a secret. He pours out his troubles to Madame Max, who replies that while he is so poor and she is so rich, why can she not help him with the paltry sum that he needs. He cannot tell her everything, but dwells on how dishonourable it would be for a man to take money from a woman. She stretches out her hand and tells him to take the money and the hand that gives it. Unable to tell his secret, and in the deepest distress, he replies ‘It cannot be as you have hinted to me.’ Poor Marie cries ‘Then I have betrayed myself!’ and flies from the room. Phineas in a state of total shock has somehow to get himself out of the house, and flings himself onto the turf in a secluded corner of Green Park to consider his fate. Timing is all.
I told you, though, that Phineas Finn had two novels to himself. He proved such a popular character that readers refused to believe that he would disappear back to the life of a Dublin barrister with his sweet Mary Flood Jones. Poor Mary took the brunt of that, and sadly died in childbirth, with her son, between the end of Phineas Finn and the beginning of Phineas Redux. Now DEFINITELY read on.
My second example comes from Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night, by James Runcie, Book 2 of the Grantchester Mysteries. Sidney Chambers, charismatic vicar and sleuth, has a number of attributes that mark him out from the usual image of the clergy – in particular he has Trouble With Women. He has a longstanding and very close emotional bond to Amanda Kendall, art expert and debutante. They would certainly have married, but Sidney’s vocation has come in the way. Amanda has stated in no uncertain terms that she refuses to become the wife of a vicar (I don’t blame her, but, well, I think one might possibly make an exception for Sidney). Sadly for everyone reading the books, though, it is absolutely crystal clear that they are right for each other. But now there is another woman in his life – Hildegard, the widow of a murdered man. She returns home to Berlin, but stays in touch with Sidney, and their relationship grows, very, very slowly. As close and loving friends, Sidney and Amanda share their emotional lives with one another (good luck with that…. But this is fiction, and they seem to manage it).
In the story The Uncertainty Principle, Sidney, who is always alive to Amanda’s happiness, uncovers the deceptions of the latest man she plans to marry. He manages to do so with face-saving tact, unmasking the rotter at the wedding rehearsal, not at the actual ceremony. In the conversation that follows, scales, as they say, fall from Amanda’s eyes, and she says:
‘…I know this is mad, and you probably think I am crazy, but would it be a disaster if you married me? Not in the religious sense, you understand, [note: there is a running joke that Amanda asks Sidney to marry her, but generally to the wrong man] but in the romantic sense, as husband and wife.’
If she had suggested this ten years ago it would have been the most thrilling moment of Sidney’s life. But now, after so much had happened, it was too late.
Amanda laments that now she realises he is the only man who really understands her – but her almost psychic connection to Sidney, so well do they know one another, leads her then to guess, and to tell him, that he loves Hildegard, something he had not even admitted to himself. It is a loving and selfless act. They part, still promising undying friendship, leaving Sidney in such a state of shock that he does not notice the tears streaming from his eyes.
Grantchester series 2 has just started on ITV, but I am not holding out much hope of seeing this intensely moving story on screen. For reasons known only to the scriptwriter and production team, Amanda has been married off to one of her truly inadequate suitors, and is not as happy as she deserves to be, not by a long chalk. Goodness knows how that is going to play out, but it will have the most tenuous connection possible to the book. Harrumph.
The final observation on these two examples is the other element that binds them together, that Timing Is All, and in both cases the time for this proposal, initiated by a woman, was wrong, which I find rather saddening.
I do hope you will come back with other examples, particularly some where the Time Is Right, and both concerned are Happy Ever After.
Anthony Trollope: Phineas Finn. The Irish Member. First published 1867 in serial form, 1869 in book form.
Numerous editions exist, in print and ebook format, including a free etext on Project Gutenberg.
James Runcie: Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night. Grantchester Mysteries Book 2. Pbk. ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 369pp.