Amy Dillwyn’s novel, Jill, introduces one of the most entertaining heroines I’ve come across in a long time. She’s selfish, ruthless, cynical, and often funny; a character who is a far cry from the “girl-heroines” of the novels she’s brought up on with their gleefully-rejected models of femininity. Dismissing these “sentimental and goody” story books, Jill narrates instead a picaresque romp of disguises, bandits, gothic settings, outlandish and comical characters (a woman terrified of germs, another who cares only for her dogs, a ridiculous spinster, a lazy butler), unexpected turns of fortune, and romance.
Jill overthrows conventions at every turn. The book opens with her challenge to the idea that “men are more apt to be of an adventurous disposition than women”, and goes on to disprove the assertion through its account of her own startling adventures. Christened Gilbertina Trecastle (her parents had hoped for a boy who they planned to name in honour of her maternal grandfather, Lord Gilbert), she adopts the name Jill, in spite of her mother’s protests. After her mother’s death, she becomes her father’s travelling companion, an upbringing which is a far cry from the “orthodox school room routine that falls to the lot of most girls”. She acquires a taste for travel, discovers an aptitude for languages, and since her father is largely uninterested in her, a habit of independence. That independence is threatened by her father’s second marriage to a woman whose attempts to tame Jill result in her decision to run away from home.
But this is no tear-stained flight of a hand-wringing heroine who won’t
survive five minutes in the big, bad world. Her escape is well-planned and as cynical
as any of her many deceptions, relying as it does on tricking the last in a
string of governesses whose lives Jill’s defiance has made a misery. Determined
to earn her own living, and having coolly considered her options, she decides
to pass herself off as a lady’s maid, and carefully sets out to acquire the necessary
At this point, the kicking over of conventions really takes off as Jill, the
daughter of a baronet and granddaughter of a Lord, rejects her upper-class status
to disguise herself as a working woman. Class barriers are not the only ones
she breaches. She gets a job as lady’s maid to Kitty Marshall, a young woman
whom she had first met at the age of fifteen when she was travelling with her
father in Italy. Kitty had made a favourable impression on her then, and now
that liking turns into love. It is not, however, a love that merely mimics the tropes
of contemporary heterosexual romantic fiction. There is no idealising of the loved
one: Jill appraises Kitty with a clear-sightedness that many lovers might baulk
at. Adorable she might be, but she is also haughty, proud, worldly and
ambitious, and motivated by a craving for “popularity and power”.
The transgression of gender roles, already declared at the opening of the
novel with Jill’s bold claim to the role of a “female adventurer(s)”, is underscored by the absence of heroes. When
Kitty and Jill get into trouble with Corsican bandits they don’t wait for a man
to come along and rescue them. Kitty’s male suitors are removed from the scene
in one way or another, and when Jill herself attracts the attentions of a valet
below stairs, she deals with his advances by burning off his whiskers. At the
same time, Jill pursues her career with all the gusto of the traditionally male
rogues of picaresque literature with their frank admissions of thefts, lies, frauds
and trickeries; their self-centredness; their cheerful hypocrisy (Jill berates
her stepmother for bullying and lying, while indulging in these behaviours
herself); and their half-amused,
half-contemptuous attitudes towards their victims.
Kirsti Bohata, who wrote the excellent introduction to this Honno edition of Jill, has suggested that nineteenth-century women “writing about same-sex desire use servants and mistresses to explicitly encode or articulate love between women” (1). That may well be so, but in Jill the element of class-transgression is an uneasy one. Jill can never slough off her class identity; she remains obsessed with her own status. Her anger with her stepmother is fuelled by her indignation that she has been denied her chance to make her “appearance in society”. She takes advantage of her social position to bully her governesses and force them to resign, but it is her stepmother’s irritation she notices rather than any financial or emotional impact on women who are dependent on their employment for survival: their feelings simply don’t matter.
Her discovery that her stepmother’s father was a clerk, and her mother’s
second husband a “small retail shopkeeper bearing a name so obviously vulgar as
Scroggins” is seized upon as the means of exacting her revenge, and Jill
threatens to expose her stepmother’s connections. The proposed denunciation
calls into question the sincerity of remarks like “there was nothing really
to be ashamed of” in this background; Jill knows perfectly well that “few people in
society would altogether enjoy having a mother…who sold soap and tallow candles
in the East End”. Jill’s loathing of the valet’s sexual harassment is intensified
by her fury that he should have the temerity to approach her: she is
“scandalised at the notion of a man-servant taking the liberty to raise his
eyes to a lady”.
Ultimately, of course, Jill is only slumming it, and the suggestion that it is class difference that is keeping her and Kitty apart is not entirely convincing. If the only issue were that Kitty can only see Jill as a mere lady’s-maid, all Jill has to do is reveal her true identity. But Kitty is utterly oblivious to Jill’s feelings for her, and there’s never any sense, either, that she would do anything so socially risky as love a woman, even one of her own class. In the end, in a fairy-tale twist of fortune, Jill returns to the world from whence she came, candidly acknowledging that she prefers “a position of ease and independence, with ample means, and no one to dictate to or interfere with me” to the tenuous independence of a woman who has to work for her living.
So is Jill a novel about class relations, a lesbian romance, a gothic
novel, a comedy, fairy tale or sensation novel? It’s all these things, and
more, and an enjoyable read into the bargain.
(1) Kirsti Bohata, ‘Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, (Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2017), pp. 341-359.
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