The Imaginary Country
Mina Laury is one of Charlotte Bronte’s Tales of Angria. Angria is the imaginary land she and her siblings created and wrote about as children and young adults, into their twenties. These “tales” are not all highly plotted, and many are not actual stories at all, but vignettes or “sketches.” Mina Laury, with a duel, a wife and mistress meeting, and a proposal of marriage, probably has enough plot to qualify as a story. It is not very scholarly to look at this work solely in relation to Bronte’s later work, particularly Jane Eyre, but it’s difficult not to.
The center of the love story in Jane Eyre is a choice for Jane; to leave the man she loves desperately, or become his mistress. Jane faces this dilemma twice; first when Rochester tries to trick her into a sham marriage, and again when the truth is revealed and Rochester asks her point-blank to live with him. Jane loves him, but he can never be free of his wife, who is mad. What does a woman who is desperately in love do?
Bronte wrote Mina Laury in 1838, nine years before she published Jane Eyre. She was twenty-two years old. Mina is no Jane, and Arthur (or Adrian), the Duke of Zamorna and king of Angria, is no Rochester – yet the similarities are powerful. Mina represents the road not taken, the choice Jane did not make.
The Duke of Zamorna is a recurring character in these stories; a powerful character; vigorous, intelligent, strong-willed, passionate and selfish. He is the uneasy king of a turbulent populace. He remains friends with his father-in-law, Northangerland, who rebelled against him and plunged the country into civil war. The people hate Northangerland and resent their king’s friendship with him. Mary, Northangerland’s daughter, is Zamorna’s wife, and it appears that this is not an arranged marriage but a love match – or, at least, Mary loves Zamorna. Mina Laury is the king’s mistress.
Historically, because of the political nature of royal marriages, royal mistresses were often cut some slack by the people. In Angria, however, this is clearly not the case. Zamorna and Mina are more like upper-class society types, not a monarch and his mistress.
Hartford was one of Zamorna’s loyal lieutenants, but his drinking and his infatuation with Mina Laury have driven him to the point of dangerous obsession. He decides that honorable marriage to him would be a better position than neglected mistress to the king, and decides to propose to Mina.
The meeting between Hartford and Mina seems quite familiar. At dusk, Mina is walking along a secluded road in the silent countryside when she hears hoofbeats clattering behind her. This should be a nostalgic scene to readers of Jane Eyre, even though the horse does not slip. Mina continues on to her house, and Hartford rides into her courtyard moments later. Although Mina has ceded all her power and reputation to Zamorna, she is well provided for materially. Because of the passive nature of her relationship to the king, I assumed she was a passive character, but she is not. This is what makes her interesting and frustrating. She and Hartford know one another from the civil war, when Mina’s house was used as a strategy center for the king. When Northangerland’s troops approached and took the house, Mina and Hartford escaped, and I think that Mina’s child was killed in that escape. Thus, she seems intelligent, brave, loyal and stoic.
For a woman whose whole identity is shaped by a man, Mina is self-confident and poised. When Hartford begins showering her with compliments, she deflects them gracefully. He compliments her tiny white hands, and she says she was a soldier’s daughter and her hands are peasant hands. Throughout the scene, Hartford (who is drunk) is passionate, barely in control, and Mina is calm and collected.
Finally, Hartford proposes, and Mina explains coolly that she would not be a good wife because she would break her vow and go back to Zamorna.
“…Hartford, if I were to be your wife, if Zamorna only looked at me, I should creep back like a slave to my former service. I should disgrace you as I have long since disgraced all my kindred. Think of that, my lord, and never say you love me again.”
Hartford confronts Zamorna and the two of them fight a duel. Zamorna is angry because Hartford has presumed to acquire a possession of his. It is quite clear that his rage is not due to any love for Mina, who, Bronte says, he only visits about twice a year. (Twice a year!) He sees Hartford’s love for Mina as a property crime; Hartford is poaching.
After the duel, which does not go well for Hartford, Zamorna rides to Mina’s mansion. He is unaware that a few hours earlier a carriage capsized in the road, and Mina has offered shelter to the passenger, a patrician woman. Mina has given the woman a false name and said she is the housekeeper, but since she was dressed for a visit from Zamorna and wearing the diamonds he gave her, she suspects that her mysterious visitor doubts her housekeeper story.
“Miss Laury could have torn the dangling brilliants from her ears. She was bitterly stung. ‘Every body knows me,’ she said to herself. ‘”Mistress,” I suppose, is branded on my brow.’” Here, nine years before Jane Eyre, is one of those moments in Bronte’s writing where the character’s voice rings out with immediacy and authenticity. While Mina doesn’t know it, the reader has immediately recognized her guest as Mary, Duchess of Zamorna, on her way to meet her husband as she promised she would do if he did not send for her.
Next on the scene is Zamorna himself. He is aware of Hartford’s proposal. Mina does not know that he knows. Zamorna says that he will “reward” Mina for her loyalty by marrying her off to an aristocrat. How about Hartford? This is merely Zamorna, who holds all the cards, testing Mina’s loyalty. Mina “passes” this cruel test by collapsing into a faint at Zamorna’s feet. Zamorna then sits and watches his unconscious lover for several minutes, doing nothing, until she rouses. The scene is not unlike Rochester’s discussion with Jane about his plans to marry Blanche Ingram, only colder and more viscious. Zamorna is not Rochester, although the two men share the same acerbic energy.
When Smart Women Make Stupid Choices
As a modern reader, I was hoping that Zamorna would get caught by his wife, and forced to confront the two women who love him without limits, but of course, that does not happen, and Zamorna escapes, having tricked both his wife and his mistress. Mary, earlier in the story, has exhibited the same fawning, passive, obsequious style of love as Mina. In fact, she has put herself at risk, driving her carriage on icy roads, to be at this side, when he has thought nothing of her since he took his leave. Unlike Rochester, who has redeeming qualities, Zamorna has nothing to offer except power, but both women came to his side before he was king. The Brontes enjoyed playing with the type of character that was described at the time as “Byronic;” in some sense, people who put themselves above social mores. Theoretically, it is Zamorna’s energy and his, for lack of a better word, “character” that draws women to him, but it’s hard to see what’s attractive about this controlling, lying, manipulative man.
To be fair, Mina’s life isn’t a bad one. She has a manor, jewels and clothes. Bronte is at pains to show us a scene of Mina working her accounts, quizzing the estate manager, and, in short, being a good chatelaine. Plainly she is bright and practical. In later stories, it appears she is not in complete seclusion since presumably she is seen at the theater and so on. Still, with “Mistress” branded on her forehead (symbolically, at least), she is scorned. Even Zamorna despises her, as we find out in a later section, Caroline Vernon, when he warns Caroline Vernon that Laury is someone she should not visit. It might be that, since he plans to seduce Vernon, he doesn’t want the two women comparing notes, but his off-handed comments about Laury, (He often “doesn’t think of her”) shows contempt, not concern.
The frustrating thing about Mina Laury is that both Mary and Mina are strong, capable, intelligent women. They aren’t passive victims, or dim bulbs drawn to anything in trousers. They are also self-aware, and this is particularly important with Mina. The comment about being branded on the brow is revealing, but when Mina leaves the room after rejecting Hartford’s proposal, she weeps stormily. Clearly she is aware that she has rejected the one honorable way out of her situation, much the way Jane, nine years later, will reject St. John, a man who is good, but cold.
The Roads Not Taken
Station in society, or perhaps respect, is an important value for Jane Eyre nine years later. In considering Rochester’s plea to be his mistress, she ruminates on her lack of standing and power. That is, in fact a big part of her decision to say “No,” even if it means almost immediate poverty and the threat of starvation. Earlier in Jane Eyre, when Jane is very close to marrying Edward, Bronte describes him as being as sleek and self-satisfied as a pasha. This is because he is about, in effect, to create his own harem.
It’s as if we’re watching Bronte wrestle with, or experiment with, every alternative, kind of like a role-playing game, with Mina. The society of Angria mirrors the Britain of the time; Mina can’t go off on her own and get a job. In a later section, Henry Hastings, Bronte develops a new character, Elizabeth Hastings, who is much closer to Jane Eyre. She becomes self-supporting (a teacher) and rejects the offer of mistress-hood from the “Byronic” man who falls in love with her.
It’s risky to read too much into these sketches because every one of them was part of a larger work in progress. Charlotte broke some rules earlier by resurrecting Mary, who had been killed off by her brother Branwell in the saga. In Mina Laury, it does seem like she is tinkering, trying to find the way a woman can have sexual happiness with the married man she loves, and still maintain self-respect.
A Woman’s Place
Things are different nine years later, when Jane Eyre, a penniless, powerless orphan, comes to work for Edward Rochester. Some of the differences aren’t obvious on the page. Between Mina Laury and Jane Eyre, Bronte had gone to Brussels to teach, and had an infatuation of her own, with a married man, Monsieur Heger. In Mina Laury, Mina is content to live a solitary life, hoping to see her beloved every six months. Perhaps, in real-life, Bronte found that watching the man you pine for ignore you for his wife (there is no indication that Heger ever encouraged Bronte) was not so pleasant.
Mina Laury is an interesting window into a brilliant writer’s process. It’s filled with the same fine prose and eye for detail that will grace Bronte’s published works, and it works the same themes. A woman’s place? A hundred and seventy-five years later, we’re still trying to figure out where that is.