So Near, So Far (an introduction to Eliza Lynn Linton) -by Mike Smith

While reading the single volume edition of Charles Dickens’ letters I came across the following footnote relating to Eliza Lynn Linton:

‘I don’t know how it is but she gets so near the sexual side of things

as to be a little dangerous to us at times.’

-Dickens to W.H.Wills, Oct.6,1854 (in The Letters of C.D.)

As you might imagine, this intrigued me. Who was this woman? How ‘near to the sexual side’ did she get? And that ‘us’, being the periodical, Household Words, which Dickens edited, how far from the sexual winds was it expected to sail?

I turned to Wikipedia and discovered that Eliza was born 198 years almost to the day that I was reading on (10th, February, 1822), and about forty minutes drive away from where I live. 

Of more general importance might be the fact that she was the first salaried woman journalist in Britain, and a prolific novelist. I’m not so interested in novels but, I wondered, might she have written the odd short story (that biographers wouldn’t think worth mentioning)? In the bibliography two titles suggested that she had.

I took a look online at the text of Faithful and True, a long short story in three parts from An Octave of Friends with other Silhouettes and Stories (1891). This is a tale of deferred love. The heroine, Georgie Fenton, refuses an offer of marriage from a rich local industrialist, precipitating the ruin of her long established, but financially declining family. She waits for the ‘faithful and true’, but poor lover, whom her father has driven away, and she has to wait until the last paragraph of the story. By then her father has died, her brother-in- law has lost her inheritance through bad management, and she has been reduced to working as a governess for the man whom she rejected and his new wife. She is on her sick-bed when the lover, Roger Lewin, returns, grizzled and bearded, to lift her from the sick bed ….and live happily ever after. 

Two minor curiosities in particular struck me. One is that Georgie is aged twenty eight at the end of the story, but written of as being distinctly old! The second is that one of Lynn’s descriptions refers to the Solway Moss, which is a feature of the north Cumbrian coast, though she would probably have been living in London when the story was written. The village in which all this happens is called‘Brough Bridge’. We have several types of Brough up here too. And a minor character is named Mary Dowthwaite – a good old Cumbrian (Cumberland in those days) name! Eliza was born in Keswick, and though a London journalist, her ashes were scattered in Crosthwaite churchyard, near Keswick.

Yet Lynn is not, at heart, a descriptive writer. She might have written for Dickens, and worried him, but she didn’t write like him. Neither landscapes nor interiors are visually described in any detail – though that Solway reference shows a landscape in her memory. Thumbnail sketches of the characters early in the story carry us through in most cases without much addition. What she does do, and it gives the story a particular quality, is to tell what the characters do, and what they say. It’s as if once the introductions are out of the way she can get on with concentrating on what the story is.

The Wiki entry for Lynn cites her ‘anti-feminism’, but also her writing of ‘modern’ and ‘independent’ women and there’s no doubt that Georgie is strong-minded and independent. Yet also, she passes the control of her finances to the inept brother-in-law. He’s not the only flawed male character, nor is financial ineptitude his only flaw. Georgie’s father is also a weak character and the rejected suitor, Hunter, a retired iron merchant, is painted as a man without any emotional intelligence who sees value only in money and merit only in people who have managed to accumulate it. Even the comic Charley Dunn, who is a life and soul of the party type and acts as go-between for Georgie and her absent lover, is what we might these days call an ‘air-head’.

Roger, the lover, is a caricature rather than a character. Honest, loyal and not to be daunted or put off, we know little else about him and are expected to take it on trust that he is worth waiting for; but then, we must trust that she is too, for we learn nothing else of her character other than her stubborn resistance in face of the pressure to marry ‘well’. Authorial comments make sure we know how we’re supposed to ‘see’ these men.

A large part of the story is taken up with the picnic that opens it, during which we are briefly introduced to more than a dozen named characters, most of whom will not appear or appear only very briefly again. Last of them, almost sidling into the tale, are the heroine and her lover:

‘…little Georgie Fenton’s half sister and her husband. And then 

there was little Georgie herself, and her papa’s secretary, young 

Mr Roger Lewin.’ 

That ‘little’  is employed for a third time in the next sentence, and will crop up again before the story ends. Roger, sacked from his job, vanishes overseas to be recalled only in the ‘faithful and true’ of the title, which is the advert he leaves regularly in The Times, his letters having been intercepted by Georgie’s half-sister.

So the story really gathers itself, albeit over many pages, around Georgie and the man whose proposal she has rejected:

‘Mr Samuel Hunter, a well conditioned, not ill-looking, and 

very wealthy iron merchant from the Black Country’

There’s a parallel being established here, which will run through the entire story. Not only Georgie’s trajectory, but Hunter’s too is charted. Hers is all decline, until that sick-bed rescue, but his is more nuanced. He has lent her papa money and forecloses, ending up by buying their home and marrying another. But in a series of almost casual observations, Eliza Lynn reveals him, and brings him to an appropriate, in the context, villain’s end:

‘…Mr Hunter, being a reticent, self-sustaining, rather 

thick-skinned man’

His arrogance, subtly brought out in his misjudgement of Georgie:

‘..little Georgie was not the kind of person to be driven save 

by himself.’

His attitude to Roger, and other men is summed up by his saying:

‘No man who is poor can be worth his salt’

But in the end, in an unhappy marriage, his approach to life is damned:

‘Mr Hunter, cold, stony and insolent, with that insolence of 

despair which knows there is nothing to be had from love.’  

When I read this long story through, I found myself skim reading partly because I was trying to get a sense of the author and her style, but also partly because I sensed there were no subtle plot convolutions to keep an eye out for, and no vital, or even significant details that, should I miss them, would stymie my understanding of later events. I read on simply to find out how bad things would get, and whether or not Roger would reappear to redeem the situation, and justify the waiting! In that sense, the story could have been told in a lot fewer words. Indeed, by the time he arrived, for the last couple of sentences, any loose ends in the form of other characters’ lives had been dealt with – and really, I wouldn’t have minded if they hadn’t. In a Dickens story, not knowing what happened to the minor characters would, I think, be a great loss to the story. 

But what about getting ‘near the sexual side of things’? This collection was published twenty years after Dickens’ time, and there’s nothing that we would call explicit in it, but, implicitly, Roger and ‘little Georgie’ surely haven’t been only picking daisies in that opening picnic scene. A few snippets might give you the idea:

‘[Roger Lewin reappears]…looking, as Mary Dowthwaite said

 softly: ‘as if he had met an angel in the wood’.’

‘[little Georgie reappears]….her hands full of flowers, her eyes

 full of love, and her heart so full of happiness she scarce knew how

to hold it without letting it run out for all to see.’

And after the event, her half sister, perhaps the prime mover in pushing Georgie towards Mr Hunter, observes:

‘[she]…had detected little Georgie stealing off into the wood

 where Roger Lewin had sauntered not long before.’

Perhaps I’ll find something more explicit in other stories; or would that have been enough to stir Dickens’ Household Words readership to shock and outrage? Of course, returning to Dickens’ original note, he confesses that he too doesn’t ‘know how it is’ that ‘she gets so near to the sexual side’, but he’s worried that she has! That’s quite a compliment, I think, from one writer to another.

Mike Smith on Elisa Lynn Linton

Mike Smith writes poetry, plays and essays – mostly on the short story form, in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com . He lives on the edge of England within sight of a sliver of Solway Firth.

About the contributor

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