Heyeroines in need of a slap
16. Hester Theale (Sprig Muslin)
Among the many reasons postulated for the peculiar nature of Regency society (making morning calls in the afternoon, watering one's dresses, eating turtles, high-perch phaetons, the whole reticule business, you know what I mean), one that has, I believe, received far too little attention is the fact that in the early Nineteenth Century there was no such thing as day-time television (or indeed any remotely close equivalent achievable through the technology available at the time - circulating libraries simply cannot be considered sufficient substitute).
Why should this be a problem? Because without day-time television Regency society cannot have supported a sufficient number of popular psychologists, and without popular psychologists there could be no pop psychology, and without pop psychology our heyeroes and heyeroines would have had no way of understanding their need for closure, say, or any real understanding that yes, they were worth it. Without that regular infusion of platitudes wrapped up in psychobabble they could never understand that all their problems stemmed from the fact that they genuinely were different from everybody else; that they simply had not met their soulmate; that they needed positive affirmations; or that they were, perhaps through no real fault of their own, dangerously and destructively passive-aggressive.
Which brings me neatly to Lady Hester Theale. I have no wish to dwell on the fact that she never took, that she had no countenance, nor the least degree of modishness. We should completely ignore any suggestion, however well founded, that she is stupidly shy and dowdy. Her slightly myopic gaze and her reputation for dullness need not detain us. All we are interested in is the inner Hester, the potentially worthwhile and possibly even genuinely "good" person underneath all those layers. The only question we should ask is "does she show signs of being passive-aggressive?" And the only answer we can entertain is "yes".
Let us consider the evidence. Since the death of her dear mama Lady Hester has remained quiet - perhaps too quiet. Her father's heir now lives at Brancaster, complete with a wife who is ideally placed to be the châtelaine of the family seat, and yet Hester has done nothing about moving out. She has just remained in place, quietly, resolutely, and, had her poor family only understood the concept - indeed if only the concept had been cooked up at the time - classically passively-aggressively.
And then Sir Gareth Ludlow turns up, the tragic death of Clarissa Lincombe still, after many years, haunting him. Of course Lady Hester does not recognise that what Sir Gareth needs is closure. She doesn't recognise this in part because that particular piece of psychocobblers had yet to be invented, but also because she is protected from such sensibility by the wall of passive aggression that she has constructed around herself.
When offered the opportunity to marry a handsome and, let us not beat about the bush, eligible young man such as Sir Gareth (even if he does happen to arrive with a regular out-and-outer in tow) a normal reaction might be to faint dead away, to rush from the room wearing an expression of shock, or else to say "yes." Lady Hester's reaction is to turn him down, not forcefully, not with any explanation, but simply with an otherwise unelaborated upon observation that marraige to Sir Gareth would be "anguish". Classic passive aggressivity, I am sure you would agree.
Lady Hester compounds her passive aggression with repeated attempts to force upon Sir Gareth some sort of cute and fluffy animal: perhaps one of Juno's puppies, or else a kitten saved from drowning. What could be a more sterotypically passive-aggressive act. The gift of the animal is almost an explicit declaration that the giver sees herself as unbiddable (albeit probably house-trained, unlike the puppy or kitten).
And it is not just the blanking of Sir Gareth's proposal. The unresponsive acquiescence to Sir Gareth's request that Lady Hester attend to Miss Summercourt; the silent treatment of the maid, Povey; the dismissive attitude towards Mrs Chicklade; all are further indications that Lady Hester has learned to get her way not by being a "joiner" or "team-player", or through reaffirmation of her own self-worth, or any other tool from the armory of the Positive Person, but by means of a prolonged and uncommunicative sulk.
Never mind that the delightfully unprepossessing Mr Whyteleaf has his future preferment to consider; never mind that Lord Widmore has his position in society and a seat in the House of Lords ahead of him; never mind that Sir Gareth could do a great deal better for himself by marrying Miss Stockwell; Lady Hester simply stands there, unmoved and unmoving, using the silent treatment to get her way. And in the end she succeeds. Just as the endless dripping of water will eventually erode a marble block, Lady Hester's oppressive meekness eventually wears away all resisitance and even Sir Gareth, weakened by an unfortunate bullet, and as a rsult subject to these wearyingly prolonged silences through all his waking hours, and no doubt some of his sleeping ones, while he recuperates at the Bull Inn, succumbs at the end.
With Lady Hester apparently shy and unexplaining to the last, her passive aggression, unrecognised for the sociopathic disorder that we now so clearly see it to be, claims another victim.
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