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316 16. Romance, Death and other Predicaments: Guidance for the Young in the Fiction of Mary Gordon (Mrs Disney Leith) JANET POWNEY AND JEREMY MITCHELL Mary Gordon’s fiction weaves plot lines through the traditional dilemmas faced by young women and, to some extent men. Heterosexual marriage was the traditional path for girls, and ‘who shall I marry?’ – especially across the fault lines of class and religion – is the persisting question in most of Gordon’s fifteen novels. Her stories were designed within a defined moral and religious code for a ‘young readership’. The novels are set against the conventional morality of the time, glossing over deprivation, violence, crime, and corruption, to present situations of romantic and family attachment and disaffection, friendships and misunderstandings, though crippling disease and death often play a malign (or sometimes benign) role, in the way that relationships develop. Mary Charlotte Julia Gordon (1840–1926) was a member of the landed gentry, with links to the aristocracy, though her family had reached that status in society relatively recently. Her paternal grandfather, General Sir Willoughby Gordon, had risen through the military and social ranks by making himself useful to those occupying the peaks of power and influence.1 Gordon’s father, Sir Henry Percy Gordon, was of a different stamp, though he, too, married into the ranks of the aristocracy: his bride was Lady Mary Agnes Blanche Ashburnham, daughter of the Earl of Ashburnham. An outstanding undergraduate at Cambridge and the first Honorary Fellow of his college, after a short career as a barrister in Chancery, he retired early to live the life of a cultivated country gentleman, who had inherited an estate in Aberdeenshire to add to his properties in the Isle of Wight. Mary Gordon had a rich cultural upbringing, as well as being enveloped in material prosperity. Her mother (like her paternal grandmother) was a talented amateur artist, while her father was an accomplished etcher. She 317 guidance for the young in the fiction of mary gordon had no formal schooling but her father taught her Mathematics, Ancient Greek, and Latin. She had a German tutor and spoke and wrote German, French, and Italian very correctly, and was self-taught in Icelandic. Like her mother, her grandmother and her aunt Julia were skilled amateur artists and Gordon was also a water colourist. One of her music tutors was the composer, Sterndale Bennet, who was so impressed with her musical talent that he wanted her to become a professional pianist – an inappropriate career for a woman then, especially one with Gordon’s background. J. S. Bratton draws attention to the fact that: The paradoxes of the situation in which many middle-class women found themselves were often cruelly painful. Furnished with financial and marital expectations which were not necessarily to be fulfilled, they were expected to continue to regard an unattainable motherhood as their proper sphere, while supporting and occupying themselves in roles in which it was not desirable or even regarded as possible that they should excel.2 Any professional musical ambitions she had may have been thwarted, but Gordon played the organ at home and in her local churches in Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Wight, where she also coached the village choir and gave lessons to any child who showed musical promise. There were family concerts. Gordon and the rest of the family played stringed instruments, and her daughter Edith was often an accompanist in family concerts of classics and Scottish songs. As well as learning to play musical instruments, several of her children were competent amateur artists and illustrated Gordon’s books. Mary Gordon’s childhood family was closely intertwined with their Isle of Wight neighbours, the Swinburnes. Gordon and the poet Algernon – whose mothers were sisters and fathers were cousins – enjoyed a close friendship in adolescence and young adulthood. A generally accepted view is that Algernon expected to marry his younger cousin, a fairly common practice in Victorian England.3 However, Gordon chose a one-armed hero of the Sikh wars, Colonel (later General) Robert Disney Leith, an 318 janet powney and jeremy mitchell Aberdeenshire neighbour, who was twenty-one years older than she was.4 As adolescents, Mary Gordon and Swinburne worked together on literary projects and he probably encouraged her to write her first (anonymous) novel, Mark Dennis; or, the Engine Driver: A Tale of the Railway (1859) that she dedicated to his sister, Alice. Railway travel was relatively new, still exciting and dangerous – there was no roof...


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