Would you care to have your heart wrung by your reading selection this week? Are you in the mood for something old-fashioned, featuring an (upper-class) angelic, golden-haired child, alone in the world, but whose innate goodness and daintiness wins the hearts of those virtuous poor folk who come to care for her? Would it help if the story took place in New Orleans, with all of its quirky charm? Would the presence of a blue heron as the child's animal companion, provide further attraction to the story?
Thanks to the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the digitization activities of Google, you can read this story online. It's called Lady Jane and the author was Mrs. C.V. Jamison. The NYPL's copy is dated 1918, but I have reason to believe that the story may have been serialized in the noted 19th century children's magazine, St. Nicholas. (A Google search popped up a digitized volume that contained one of the chapters from Lady Jane.) I read my mother's copy of Lady Jane some forty years ago. I still think fondly of it. It is a lovely story, even if it is a bit of a period piece.
The stumbling block (for me as an adult reader) is the villainess, Madame Jozain. It's not that she isn't adequately mean to Lady Jane. It's that the back story provided for her by Jamison is such that I found myself feeling sorry for her. Here's what we learn of her background:
The son she adores is cut from the same cloth as his father (being of criminal character) and she has literally nothing to make her life tolerable. When Lady Jane and her mother come under Madame Jozain's care, her initial reaction to their needs is entirely practical rather than evil. She carefully calculates the likely cost of the clothing in the luggage, determines that the mother (now ill) is wealthy enough to pay handsomely for a nurse, and takes them into her home. She isn't intending to do anything more than be paid for her charitable act. It's only when Lady Jane's mother dies that the negative side of Madame Jozain emerges.
The problem is that from a historical standpoint I can't help but sympathize with the emotional stress that causes Madame Jozain to go bad. She's a woman without resources or family. She is without skills or much education. She is physically abused by her spouse. She ought to have been well situated in life based on where she began, but one bad marriage and she's done for.
Of course, in the story, I'm not supposed to feel any sympathy for her. She's abusive to Lady Jane in a variety of ways. She has no fine principles or inner strength. She succumbs to greed more times than not. But realistically what chance had she to do better? (By contrast, there's another well-born character Mamselle Diane D'Hautreve, a true aristocrat fallen into poverty, who displays all of the character that Madame Jozain lacks. It's impossible to miss the moral comparison presented to the reader.) There is a happy ending to the novel. Lady Jane, is ultimately restored to her proper sphere in life, her family's wealth provides for her future, and ultimately we get a hint that she will marry the right man. By contrast, Madame Jozain who did nothing to help Lady Jane back to her proper family, dies alone in a charity hospital, 'destitute of every necessity'. Put bluntly, she starves to death.
I'm not supposed to feel sorry for her, but I rather did. So, my question is, 'when was the last time that you felt sorry for a villain?'