Monday, 29 November 2010

Confinement by Katharine McMahon

GENRE: historical fiction/contemporary fiction/women's fiction

1849: Bess Hardemon arrives at the grimly Dickensian Priors Heath school, little knowing that she will one day end up as an inspiring and legendary headmistress - but at considerable personal cost. 1970: Sarah Beckett is delighted to gain a place at Priors Heath - as much for the pride of her parents as for herself - but will she fit in? The plight of a nineteenth century schoolteacher, trapped by her duty to her job, is mirrored by a modern day woman's fight to escape the shackles of a broken marriage. Bess Hardemon, a tough and canny young teacher is determined to make a difference at her new school. At the cost of her own chance of finding love, Bess remains trapped by her duty, a confinement echoed a century later by Sarah, who must make her own choice between duty and her efforts to save a broken marriage.

Confinement is a story conveying women’s entrapment, how the world encumbered their potential a hundred and fifty years ago and how it may still encumber them today. In the forefront are two female characters – Bess Hardemon, a 19th-century teacher, and Sarah Beckett, a 20th-century modern woman, contrasting their very similar situations, although they are separated by more than a century.

The story alternates between Bess Hardemon and Sarah Beckett. Bess is presented as a young teacher and a true pioneer of education, trying to establish new, modern ideas at Priors Heath, a school for girls that swears on tradition and on the fact that schools for girls are there to hone women and present them to the world as marriageable ladies. Bess, however, wants to educate women differently and give them the same opportunities that are men’s given privileges. To her, a woman is not born only to marry and please men. She is born to learn and be independent. Her feminist and modern views, however, encounter a lot of opposition and Bess must struggle at Priors Heath. She is stubborn, independent and modern, yet confined by prejudices and tradition. Priors Heath is very reminiscent of Lowood School in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Bess is very much a Jane Eyre, yet she goes much further with her ideas than Jane Eyre. Bess Hardemon is an inspiring and likeable character.

Then, there is Sarah Beckett, a woman who, as a girl, did everything to be perfect and experienced a heartbreak that marked her for life. She is confined differently than Bess. She is defined by her family – her husband and her children. For the first time in her life, she wants to do something for herself by returning to her teaching roots, yet she realises how hard that is when you are needed by your husband and children. Sarah is definitely an interesting character, but I found her annoying. She lacks spirit and although she begins to teach again and finds happiness in that, it seems she herself never knows what she truly wants and is a quite passive person, really. I liked her far less than Bess.

The story is driven by these two women, but they are a cover for the important themes that the author tried to present, I believe. This novel features strong feministic ideas and although I am not a feminist myself, I truly appreciated what the author tried to say. We take education for granted and women today can do just about anything they want to do – they (we) can study, vote, travel the world, live as spinsters without being frowned upon because of that, fly a plane, be doctors, etc. But we tend to forget about the pioneers who made all of this possible for the modern woman. McMahon concentrated on women in relation to education in particular. Women had to struggle to be able to study just like men could and although they won, the battle was harsh and it didn’t make their lives very easy, which is shown through Bess Hardemon. Even modern women, like Sarah Beckett, are often confined, so one can only imagine how confined a Bess Hardemon of the 19th century was.

I truly appreciated the themes of the novel – education, feminism, the Victorian vs. modern woman – but the story itself is a bit lacklustre. It has a good basis, but it is delivered in a slightly bland way and remains unresolved. Certain minor characters had important roles, in my opinion, but were not given enough attention. One such example is Imogen, Sarah’s close friend, who experiences a major character change in the novel, yet it is never explained (at least not to my knowledge) why she became the person she is in the novel.

If you like Katharine McMahon’s novels (her later novels are great, in my opinion) or if you like books that explore women in a feministic way, then I definitely recommend this novel to you.

THIS MISS RATES: / (3.5 stars)


Jan von Harz said...

I love the themes you talk about in this book, but it is too bad that one of the MC was a disappointment. Great review.

Kelly said...

Love your review! I might see if my library has it. It seems like an intriguing read, even if it does have some flaws.

Blodeuedd said...

Great review. Sounds like an interesting book, and I have not read many books with feminism in them

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

Great review; I think I will read The Rose of Sebastopol before I try anything else by McMahon.