Friday, 12 February 2010

A Friend

"She's my friend, Rose, she's my friend": thus Gilbert Markham to his concerned sister, in explanation of his visits to Mrs. Graham, an apparently widowed woman, recently moved to the village, and around whom there has crept an air of scandal attributable by her neighbours to nothing more concrete than an enthusiasm for living alone and a marked protectiveness over her only son. Gilbert's protestation rings false in the ear of the uninitiated: here is a man who has lived on, and worked, a farm in the village for all of his life, whose father did all this before him, who appears even to be destined for marriage with the rector's daughter, and whose relatively open, somewhat careless, nature cannot have prevented these circumstances from having generated a wide circle of true, of lifelong, friends, to supplement the support of the mother, brother and sister with whom he appears to live on good terms. Are we to believe that such a one can, over the course of the very few meetings that have taken place between Mrs. Graham and himself, have formed a friendship, of any significance in comparison with those he already enjoys and of sufficient substance to merit the setting of village convention at nought? The reader of Anne Bronte's Tenant no doubt shrugs her shoulders in disbelief, divines that our Gilbert has fallen in love, and anticipates his progress to greater self-knowledge.

But this would be going too quick and roughshod over the frequent and curious mentionings of a friend in the novels of Victorian Britain. Lizzie Hexam clings to her Jenny in defiance of brotherly advice, and protests, in justification, that Jenny is her friend; and Betty Higden in the same novel wards off the attentions of the townsfolk she meets on her travels with assurances that she does have some friends, whose names she carries on a piece of paper in her dress. Jane Eyre, for her part, denies having a friend in the world; and hers is a condition almost definitive of the nineteenth-century protagonist, for whom a friend in the world is something to be fought for and won, irrespective, mind you, of her having a family living: whether one's family provides one with friends or does not is entirely a matter of circumstance; if it does not, then it seems to have little of comfort to offer on its own accord.

One has no grasp of this state of affairs until one lives for a time in Great Britain, and sees for oneself that a friend there is rare - for reasons perhaps of the Protestant ethic that sets one alone before God; for reasons, perhaps, of those "liberal" codes that seem to allow little merit to that which does not produce "value"; for reasons, maybe this most of all, of that terrible system of class, which strips all encounters of all but those small, mindless details, lest one reveal (oh! so gauchely) one's level, or inquire (oh! so offensively) too close into that of the other; for reasons, the effect of such stripped down sociability, of the trend to crawl early and irrevocably into a mania for this or that thing (this music, this lifestyle, this dress code, this accent), in which nutshell such souls as are possible here are kept in a kind of half-life, but which shuts out all casual common rapport, gives hellos! on the street existential effect, and dissolves all those ties that might be assumed between those by and with whom one grew up.

In a place such as this, a friend is uncommon indeed, and worth courting censure to find and to keep.

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