Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                               Page 61-65

Violet Hunt Rewrites Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Their Lives (1916) 

Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 600 North Park Street, Madison, WI 53706

There is a literary genre that we can call the novel of gothic manners.1  It is a genre in which the manners become the horror.  A genre in which respectability, defined as conformity to acceptable social norms, is so burdensome to the individual as to be horrible.

Pride and Prejudice is a novel in which this is not the case.  It is a novel that strikes a perfect balance between society’s concern to maintain a reasonable working order and the individual’s freedom to be his or her self within social limits.  Thus Darcy’s claim to importance or consequence because of his social position is set right by Elizabeth’s claim to personal respect in spite of her lacking a social position equal to his; thus Lady Catherine’s claim to even greater importance than Darcy is set right by Elizabeth’s demonstration that logic is not one of Lady Catherine’s strong points; thus Elizabeth’s own claim to importance is tempered by her realization that she has been “blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.”  Frank attention to these three principal claims allows Darcy and Elizabeth to find equity as well as passion in their relationship and finally to marry.  So although society and the individual are frequently in tension in Pride and Prejudice, intelligent and affectionate individuals are able to resolve tensions and live happily within the social order.  We find, then, that Jane Austen gives us a perfectly balanced novel of manners in Pride and Prejudice.

We do not find this in Violet Hunt’s Their Lives, even though it is a novel that reminds us in many ways of Pride and Prejudice.2  The novel focuses on Christina Radmall, just as Pride and Prejudice focuses on Elizabeth. Christina has two sisters, Virgilia and Orinthia, who can be equated with Kitty and Lydia (Virgilia is beautiful, determined, calculating, and unstoppable) and with Mary (Orinthia is pathetic).  Christina, the eldest and brightest and most beautiful of the three, might be thought to combine traits of Jane and Elizabeth, save that she is so willfully imprudent. Christina at age seventeen carries on an affair of the heart with Emerson Vlaye, a man three times her age, and she refuses the one eligible bachelor, George Day (a Bingley-like young man), who proposes to her, much to her mother’s dismay.  For it is the business of Victoria Radmall, as it was the business of Mrs. Bennet, to get her daughters married.  She succeeds with Virgilia, and the novel ends with that wedding.  Indeed, this is not putting it nearly strongly enough.  Virgilia announces her engagement to Marmaduke Hall on page 289 of a novel that ends with their wedding celebration completed on page 366.  Fully one-fifth of Their Lives is given over to Virgilia’s rite of transition from maidenhood to womanhood, from being a girl to being a wife.3  And at Virgilia’s wedding, Christina meets a foreign-looking stranger, Euphan Balfame, who, in the novel’s sequel, Their Hearts (1921), proves to be even more detrimental to Christina than Emerson Vlaye.

So Their Lives ends with Virgilia, the worldly-wise younger sister of Christina, superseding her imprudent older sister in all matters of social etiquette and precedence in society.  It is interesting to note the nature of Virgilia’s conquest and the occasion of her wedding.  Dukie Hall, her husband, is said to be “as good as gold and as dull as ditchwater” (170).  His highest aspiration is to imitate William Morris, and he opens an academy to that end, which he closes as soon as his engagement takes place.  The academy’s function, presumably, having fulfilled its aesthetic mission.

There is no question but that Dukie and Virgilia are very much in love.  Their kisses resound through the last seventy-five pages of the novel.  And Christina, as their chaperon, keeps her sanity by playing the piano as loudly as she can so as not to hear the fortissimo of their osculating lips.  But the triumph of their wedding is cut across by the death of Virgilia’s great-aunt Eliza.  Protocol requires that the wedding be postponed on the death of a family member.  But Virgilia, not to be done in by a dead aunt in the north of England, forbids her mother from telling her father of the event; the wedding thereby goes forward, much to Christina’s dismay.  For like Emma Woodhouse with Mrs. Elton, Christina deplores the idea of giving way to Virgilia, whose marriage will make her first in company.  But Virgilia’s cunning in keeping her great-aunt’s death from her father shows that she is as remorselessly prudent as Christina is remorselessly romantic.

But prudence has a new definition in Violet Hunt’s world.  In Jane Austen’s fiction it was thought of as one of the cardinal or moral virtues (along with justice, temperance, and fortitude) was connected with a moral tradition that went back to Plato and a theological tradition that went back to the medieval times, at least.4  But for Virgilia prudence has nothing to do with the human spirit and everything to do with getting what she wants.  Her refusal to make known the death of her great-aunt Eliza is just one instance of this.  Her conversation with Christina the night before her wedding is another.

Ostensibly, Virgilia wants Christina to tell her the facts of life.  She comes to her sister’s bedroom, and Christina immediately feels herself in the presence of a Medusa’s head (344).  But Virgilia’s seeming vulnerability softens Christina, who tells her what she can about the physical facts of married life.  Which leads Virgilia to tell Christina that if Christina had only been a little more circumspect in her ways, Dukie would have proposed long before he did.  He was afraid to introduce Virgilia into the Hall family because she had a sister who had a reputation in society.  Christina comes finally to realize that Virgilia’s visit had nothing to do with timidity about sex but everything to do with temerity about violence.  Virgilia’s last sisterly act before leaving home is to take revenge on her older sister for everything unsettled between them in the past. 

Christina lay awake and still, as one maimed, for a long time.  She felt cold, as if a window had been opened on to her soul.  She was a rifled treasure house.  She had given of her best, her uttermost, she had been simple, serious, and sincere.  Virgilia also had been true to herself.  As usual, she had not been genuine even in this crucial interview.

After a while the importunate thought in Christina’s mind was distinctly formulated.  She had been “done.”  She had been exploited by Virgilia.  (TL 347) 

This scene turns Victorian woman’s sexual innocence into a pitiless rendering of Victorian women’s ferocity:  The sentence – “Dukie was so afraid – afraid of scandal connected with Christina” (346) – reminds one of Elizabeth Bennet’s certainty, first, that Lydia’s elopement with Wickham would end her chance to marry Darcy; and, second, that the last thing Darcy would allow himself to be would be Wickham’s brother-in-law.  The affectionate and sisterly confidences of Elizabeth and Jane have likewise been reworked by Violet Hunt as the virulent dislike of one sister for another.

Writing a preface for Their Lives (3-4) from “Somewhere in Belgium” on 7 September 1916, Ford Madox Ford, signing himself “Miles Ignotus” (Unknown Soldier), compares Violet Hunt’s method of rendering her novel to Jane Austen’s craftsmanship: “the method of Jane Austen told of the Eighties gives to ‘Their Lives,’ the character of a work of history.”  Then Ford continues: “It is history – and it makes it plain.  For that horrible family of this author’s recording explains to me why to-day, millions of us, as it were, on a raft of far reaching land, are enduring torture it is not fit that human beings should endure, in order that – outside that raft – other eloquent human beings should proclaim that they will go on fighting to the last drop of our blood.”  Ford’s specific reflection on “the last interview between Christina and her sister” is that “these remorselessly rendered people who were without remorse or pity – these people were Prussians.”

For Ford, then, an officer at the front in the First World War, “the selfishness of the Eighties – of the Victorian and Albert era – is the great ancestor of … Armageddon,” that is, of the war itself.  Or, to put the matter in slightly different terms, Jane Austen’s art, as practised during the Napoleonic Wars, has been resituated by Violet Hunt and made to reveal something about the First World War.  The remorseless realism of Jane Austen’s fiction is translated a centruy later by Violet Hunt’s rendering of domestic battles that seem little different from war itself.

How so?  At least in three ways: (1) Violet Hunt leads a relentless attack on Pre-Raphaelitism; (2) she demonstrates the hopelessness of idealistic, romantic attitudes in a harsh, materialistic world; (3) she turns the novel of manners into a novel of gothic manners.

Jane Austen’s novels often enough target an object for ridicule, whether it be the gothicism of Northanger Abbey, the sentimentality of Sense and Sensibility, the aristocratic arrogance of Pride and Prejudice or the blindness to history of Persuasion.  The specific target of Their Lives is Pre-Raphaelitism.  Ford once described D. G. Rossetti as standing in the underwear he’d slept in and gurgling about passion to a Mrs. W. Three Stars while the bacon fat hardened in the breakfast dishes.5  This rendering of the impracticality of Pre-Raphaelitism is what we find in Their Lives.  Henry Radmall, husband of Victoria and father of Christina, Virgilia, and Orinthia, is a Pre-Raphaelite artist who is sweetly inept.  He does manage to keep his family decently by his painting, and he does manage to attract the passionate fidelity of Victoria, his wife.  But he’s completely unable to control his wife’s sarcastic tongue, which keeps him out of the Royal Academy, loses him patrons, scares away suitors for his daughters, and prevents him from saying a word to Emerson Vlaye, his brother-artist, when Vlaye flirts outrageously with Christina and thereby ruins her reputation.  Henry is an updated version of Mr. Bennet who, instead of retiring to his library, retires to his studio.  Yet his very ineptness for social success makes him beloved by all, even those who fear his wife.  His devotion to the Pre-Raphaelite mode makes him ineptly charming and the one character who seems less aggressively selfish than all the others.

This fecklessness of Pre-Raphaelitism blends into the second object of attack in Hunt’s novel: a romantic attitude toward life.  Christina makes her mark upon the world as a teenage poet whose masters are Swinburne and Rossetti (160).  When her romance with Emerson Vlaye comes to naught and George Day doesn’t propose a second time to her and Virgilia precedes her to the altar, Christina casts herself as a tragic heroine, insists on seeing her life as a tragedy: “She persisted in regarding herself as a tragic figure placed fatally between the man who wanted her and could not have her, and the man she wanted who was unobtainable” (220-21).  She thinks of herself as “a professional Ariadne” (232) and pictures herself, when she thinks of suicide, as “Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ ” (221).  Christina, thinking the world well lost to love, plays Marianne Dashwood to Emerson Vlaye’s Willoughby.  The brilliant and beautiful Christina, who is determined to be a tragic heroine in a world suited only to ironic comedy is well described as being “as obstinate as an ass and a pig rolled into one” (303).  Thus it works out that “Miss Radmall was charming, all right as a partner at a dance or a dinner but not for the niche in Belgravia or the big country house with its duties and responsibilities” (303).

And this leads back to where we began: Violet Hunt’s turning the novel of manners into a novel of gothic manners.  The sisterly visit of Virgilia to Christina on the eve of her wedding turns out to be a visit from Medusa.  The wedding itself takes place in the shadow of great-aunt Eliza’s death.  Violet Hunt attaches a certain horror to the supposedly innocent rituals and manners of her society.  It is because society stands for obsolescent values that Christina takes to her Bohemian ways.  Christina may not have found any formula for success because success is what Virgilia achieves: Christina “saw that Virgilia, in one way or another, cunning, cruel, and inconsiderate, was straining to put the family’s best foot forward” (320).  Virgilia “composed a ‘manner’ for the benefit of the Halls” (321).  And the Halls are thereby made “to feel that the Hall-Radmall alliance, queerish and unusual as it had seemed in the beginning, was after all, vastly to Dukie’s advantage, although his Virgilia was an artist’s daughter and brought no money” (321).  In short, good manners are a sleight-of-hand that produces an illusion of respectability.  The result is that Virgilia gets a man as good as gold – or, in slightly altered terms, a “cunning, cruel, and inconsiderate” girl gets a man “as dull as ditchwater.”

The only man in Their Lives who understands Christina Radmall is Boris lvanoff, a “highly bred and intelligent” Russian émigré, who is “young, rich [and] eccentric” (177).  He loves her more than he’s willing to admit, and he allows his parents to make a proposal to Christina’s parents on his behalf.  But Christina never hears about it because, as the Radmalls tell the Ivanoffs, marriage is something for young folks to settle for themselves.  Boris, who is imbued with “Slav cynicism and melancholy” (267), consented to this proposal “not for a moment” because he thought that Christina “would make him happy” but because he “admired her” (267): 

“She is doomed,” he told his sister.  “Imagine, I once composed her epitaph for her.  It was: She was made for irregular situations.  I told her.  She liked it.  That is the girl all over.  She invites disaster.  She will do something someday, but first she will have to go through some experience, that, if I mistake not, will upset the people she lives among.  She’ll insist on working out her own particular perdition …”  (268) 

“Gentle, courteous and rich,” Boris knows that Christina is at heart an innocent seeking a romantic ideal and that is why she is so “reckless” – so “made for irregular situations.”

But the world of Their Lives has no place for ideals, only for rank and money.  That’s why manners are horrible and why girls like Christina, whose very name suggests a religious ideal of love long bled of any meaning, cannot succeed and why girls like Virgilia, whose name suggests something somewhat more pagan – she is presented as a Medusa – succeed in getting it all: “it was a fact [that] Virgilia had ten silver tea pots, eight butter coolers, eleven sets of silver salt-spoons, nineteen cream jugs and enough cases of knives and forks to supply a regiment” (327).  One can only wonder whether – like Mrs. Bennet with Elizabeth’s pin-money, jewels, and carriages – Mrs. Radmall will “go distracted.”  Elizabeth Bennet is a young woman who gets the bottom of her dress muddied and still manages to marry the man she loves.  Christina Radmall, metaphorically, does the same thing and cannot marry anyone.  What Violet Hunt shows when she writes about the domestic scene in the remorselessly realistic style of Jane Austen is that times have changed and manners have changed with them.  They’ve become gothic.  Socially acceptable manners – as the eve and day of Virgilia’s wedding vividly demonstrate – are now the horror. 


1 See Joseph Wiesenfarth, Gothic Manners and the Classic English Novel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988). 

2 Violet Hunt (1866-1942) was born in Durham, the daughter of Alfred Hunt, a water-colourist of Pre-Raphaelite leanings, and Margaret Hunt, a novelist.  Mrs. Hunt’s and later Violet’s house, South Lodge, became a gathering place for London Bohemian society.  Violet herself was a determined Bohemian, as well as an ardent suffragist and proto-feminist, and lived a life that served as a model for Christina Radmall’s in Their Lives ( 1916) and Their Hearts ( 1921). There is not a great deal that has been written about Violet Hunt.  There is a brief entry in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th ed., ed. Margaret Drabble (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985): 485.  There is something like a biography of her in Douglas Goldring, South Lodge: Reminiscences of Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford and the English Review Circle (London: Constable, 1943).  Robert and Marie Secor have edited one of Violet’s diaries in The Return of the Good Soldier: Ford Madox Ford and Violet Hunt’s 1917 Diary, Monograph Series No. 30 (Victoria, B.C.: U of Victoria Press, 1983).  And there are two articles on Hunt of general interest: May Sinclair,  “The Novels of Violet Hunt,” English Review 34 (1922): 106-18: Marie Secor, “Violet Hunt, Novelist: A Reintroduction,” English Literature in Transition 19 (1976): 25-34. 

3 Their Hearts (1921), the sequel to Their Lives, devotes its first thirty or so opening pages to the day of Virgilia’s wedding, too. 

4 Gothic Manners, pp. 11-16. 

5 Parade’s End, ed. Robie Macauley (New York: Knopf, 1950): 17.

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