Miss Miles: A Tale of Yorkshie Life Sixty Years Ago by Mary Taylor is by no means a great work of literature but boy is it written with some passion. Much vaunted as the friend of Charlotte Brontë, Mary Taylor is to my mind much closer either to Maria Edgeworth or to writers who come much later. Didacticism comes before story or character and yet... I really did rather enjoy this tale.
Different summaries of this book variously claim it is the story of three or four women. I think it is the story of five women. The Miss Miles of the title is Sarah born into a working class dissenting household whose family run a grocers so they are somewhat insulated against the shocks of the ups and downs of the fortunes of the mills. Their neighbours are often out of work so Sarah sees real poverty but is not quite of the poverty herself. We spend much of the book with Sarah and indeed the first 100 pages are a bit of a slog through the Yorkshire dialect (and I say that as a northerner who's lived in Yorkshire 20 years) but as she grows and her milieu broadens the dialect barrier becomes much less of a problem. Sarah want to know what makes up a lady - why are they special, what to they do all day, how do they get their money? When she hears, 'nothing' she won't believe it, and this obsession with ladies, social security, education, and the ability to get on and do things, form the heart of the book.
Sarah wants to go to school and the cheapest of the local establishments is run by Miss Bell. We then go back a few years to discover how Miss Bell came to teaching and how she formed a close friendship with a girl called Dora whose present situation is dire. I won't explain why but the education and social security thing is at the bottom of the problem. So there we have three of the women.
The fourth is Amelia whose family is nouveau riche through owning a mill. Her education has been greater than her older sisters as money became more plentiful for them at the right time. The end result has not been a success. Not that there is anything wrong with her education but the values it has given her, and her appetite for work, are the despair of her relations. When the mill hits hard times we learn how her education has helped, or otherwise, Amelia and her family.
There is a fifth lady at the periphery of this tale: Miss Everard. Once of the 'great house' she now lives in its lodge and is much under the sway of the mill owning family. An elderly lady, she has been unfit for spinsterhood and her inability to tackle her business affairs is an ongoing theme of the book. She blossoms rather charmingly at the end of the novel, showing it is never too late to adapt to new ideas.
Keeping these threads going is no mean task but Mary Taylor is equal to it and, once I'd got my eye in with the dialogue, I never flagged. Sarah is a wonderful character being very 'Yorkshire': 'upright and downright'. There is a scene where she is the guest in a room full of those above her social class and yet she gives as good as she gets - something one wishes Jane Eyre might do from time to time. There are no governess mice in this novel. Dora similarly, though brought up to be middle class, has something of the mill hand's chippiness in her soul.
"Maria", said the girl, "if people knew that women in the churchyards were alive - those in the coffins, I mean - and were waiting for us to dig them up, do you think anyone would do it?...
"Well of course they would."
"No they would not! They would say ladies did not want to get up - that they had all they wanted, and that men did not like them to get out of their graves."
That to me sounds much more like the 1890s when it was published, the decade of the New Woman (I have been cataloguing a lot of books on the New Woman and it is much on my mind), not the early Victorian years she shared with the long dead Brontës. Like Anne Brontë I think Mary Taylor, though not such an accomplished novelist as Emily and Charlotte, has much to say that's still well worth reading, and again like Anne, I think association with Charlotte has done her no favours. This is not Jane Eyre and the Gothic elements of darkness that it does share with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are more like the threats in Northanger Abbey - real, and related to cold hard cash and moral laxity. It is closer to Austen and Edgeworth and the early nineteenth century, or to the early modernism of the late nineteenth century. Read it in this vein and not as a Brontë-lite and there is much to be got out of it. I commend it to you.
Text notes: Miss Miles is out-of-print. You can order an expensive print-on-demand version from OUP or find second hand copies (which can also be expensive). Joan Bellamy wrote a biography of Mary Taylor called More Precious then Rubies (2002) about a life that was certainly unfettered by the usual feminine constraints of the nineteenth century. I occasionally have a copy of this in stock.