Miss Miles by Mary Taylor

C+

Miss Miles

by Mary Taylor
1890
Classic

Miss Miles was written in 1890, and it describes the lives of four women in Yorkshire. Sarah Miles is a working-class young woman who wants to become a “lady” even though she doesn’t fully understand what being a lady means. Amelia is a lady, or the closest thing the area has to one, and she is driven to despair because her family will not let her do any kind of work. Dora and Maria are working-class best friends who each try to escape poverty brought on by the deaths of their parents. The story highlights friendship between women, and the way both gender and class trap people.

The author of Miss Miles was Mary Taylor, a schoolmate and close friend of Charlotte Brontë. Mary always encouraged Charlotte to leave the Brontë Parsonage and gain more independence. Mary took her own advice by moving to New Zealand where she owned a shop along with her cousin, Ellen Taylor. Once she made her fortune, she sold the shop and returned to Yorkshire, where she wrote articles in favor of rights for women. Like the characters in Miss Miles, she relied on female friendship for company and letters to and from Charlotte. Mary Taylor was quite the kickass woman and climbed Mount Blanc, in the Alps, at the age of sixty.

In the novel, Mary explores the options available to women, starting with the title character, Sarah Miles. Sarah is the only character whose parents are alive and supportive throughout the novel. She begs them to send her to school, and eventually they do. She goes into service for a while at Amelia’s house (more about Amelia later), and for a time is friendly with Amelia. Sarah has a wonderful voice and eventually learns that she can earn a living as a singer with the church. Her mother both encourages and protects her. Eventually Sarah finds a satisfying romance, although not until after a rocky start. As the introduction to my edition, written by Janet Horowitz Murray, states, “Sarah has the distinction of being perhaps the only romantic heroine of the nineteenth century to punch her lover in the face.”

Maria and Dora grow up the best of friends, but are separated when their parents die and leave them impoverished. Maria had close relationships with her parents while they were alive that nourish her even after they pass. She has a bit of an inheritance and is able to rent a house in a nearby village and start a small school (this is the school that Sarah and Amelia attend). Maria has the emotional support of her elderly neighbor Miss Everard and she writes letters to Dora, promising to help Dora if Dora can ever get away from her stepbrothers.

After Dora’s father dies, her mother marries an abusive man. Dora becomes alienated from her stepfather and mother. Eventually both parents die, leaving Dora to keep house for her stepbrothers who hate her and who refuse to give her any money. With no source of income whatsoever, Dora is trapped in the house where she becomes depressed and bitter. Her only lifeline is the letters from Maria. This lifeline is what eventually enables her to escape and to make a living giving lectures and recitals, and with financial independence her bitterness fades.

Amelia seems to have the most advantages of all of the women, but actually has the least. Her family owns the town mill and is therefore wealthy with a deep desire to seem respectable. When Amelia’s family experiences a financial crisis, Amelia, who went to day school with Sarah and other working class girls, wants to get a job. While her employment options are limited, she does have some options – she could do dressmaking, work as a governess, follow Maria’s lead and teach, or find work as a lady’s companion. However, every time she brings this up, her family reacts with anger and shame. Her family members won’t explain to Amelia why the thought of her working, even as a governess, is shaming to them, and Amelia can’t understand why they should starve rather than have her work. Eventually a deeply depressed and isolated Amelia dies of Victorian Novel Disease.

There’s a lot happening in the book. There’s the fate of the mill, which is so entwined with the surrounding villages that when it is out of business people literally starve to death. There’s also the tension between regular churchgoers and ‘Dissenters.’ Maria and Sarah have stormy romances. However, even though all this stuff happens, the book feels very slow. The characters spend a lot of time stuck in their circumstances, and the book stays stuck with them. It’s not a page-turner.

However, I loved the way the book deals with friendship between women and the importance of economic independence. “Independence” is probably the wrong word, because the women rely on a network of other women to establish themselves in the workplace. However, while women need other women, they don’t have to be anyone’s prisoner. Watching the characters build their business savvy and watching them convince the community that their efforts are respectable and valid is thrilling. However, it is very rooted in a particular time and place, and doesn’t translate so well to today.

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