There will be many posts on Florence Marryat’s work over the coming months and years, as she is the alarmingly prolific subject of my proposed doctoral research. Of her seventy five novels, A Star and a Heart, alas, is not one of her strongest.
It tells the tale of glamorous actress Stella Beauchamp (real name Annie Field), who finds herself in the unlikely venue of the Theatre Royal in Leadstone, a dull and dirty manufacturing town. In order to while away the hours between performances, she cynically initiates a love affair with a talented tenor, James Amory, and leads him to believe that they might one day be married. However, Stella’s interest expires with the fall of the final curtain, ans she soon returns to the bright lights of London and the attentions of her wealthy benefactor, the decaying Lord Henry Mecklington.
Amory refuses to renounce his suit that easily and pursues Stella to the Big Smoke. There follows some violent confrontations between the two men, during which Marryat is highly scathing about the apparent degeneration of the aristocracy. Sir Henry’s dyed moustache and foppish ways are compared unfavourably with Amory’s handsome visage and athletic frame. The thoroughly repellent Lord challenges Amory to a fight, believing that the man of lower rank wouldn’t dare respond. To the delight of the reader (I must confess to having emitted a squeak), Amory floors him with a well-aimed punch between the eyes. Although he has triumphed physically, the “painted and padded old donkey” with his wealth and status is the overall victor, claiming Stella as his prize. Amory slinks off with his tail between his legs.
Stella believes her only chance of escaping her life on the stage lies in persuading Lord Henry to marry her. Although she has developed feelings for Amory, she believes it more important to marry for financial security than for love. Lord Henry intimates that a marriage proposal is imminent and she therefore permits certain familiarities. It soon becomes clear, however, than she is no more than a mistress and plaything, and her reputation is in tatters. Lord Henry believes the expensive trinkets he has lavished on her are all she can expect, and the loyalty he demands from her is not to be reciprocated. He wants her to behave as a wife without enjoying the benefits of the status and protection the married state would bring. Stella refuses to be bought in this way and hurls the jewels at his feet, adding for good measure some very unladylike comments about his advanced years and general unattractiveness.
Lord Henry ensures she loses her part in the production of Husbands in Harness (I must find out whether that was a real play), and Stella is forced to adopt a quiet existence in Brighton, now that she is a woman of ill repute with few prospects. You could have knocked me down with a feather, but James Amory just happens to be performing at the Theatre Royal, and there is an emotional reunion and marriage proposal.
Although there is little to commend the plot, Marryat’s exploration of gender relations and marriage is interesting. Stella’s early abuse of her power over Amory is then reflected in Lord Henry’s subsequent behaviour towards her, showing the dangers of an unequal relationship. Stella at various points questions the appeal of marriage, believing it to be pointless unless it brings money and status. As a woman, she has been taught to believe that she should make the best possible marriage (ie a financially advantageous one) and she is able to ignore her growing love for Amory. Lord Henry thinks women are simply to be bought and treated as pets. Although Stella’s career and reputation are ruined after their unfortunate liaison, he comes out of it unscathed. The prevailing sexual double standard dictates that it is far worse for a woman to be impure. The authorial voice declares: “I don’t see why woman shouldn’t be entitled to their ‘youthful errors,’ poor dears! as well as the nobler animals.” Stella admits her imprudence to Amory and he is unperturbed. Marryat shows that only the marriage of equals can be happy and successful.
This edition of the novel also includes a short story – An Utter Impossibility – which tells the tale of Charles Lennox, a handsome aristocrat who wants to have his cake and eat it. After a disastrous affair with the married Beatrice Hilton, he impulsively marries a girlish seventeen year old, purely on the basis of her golden curls and big blue eyes. His yearns for the more mature conversation and companionship of Beatric, who is now widowed, and imagines that they can all live together in a menage a trois. In this he is to be disappointed, and his relationships with both women are unsatisfactory. Beatrice is placed in the iniquitous position of playing confidante to both parties and is forced to flee the country.
Marryat is here considering the idea of companionate marriage and asking whether men can reasonably expect women to be possess both brains and doll-like beauty. Lennox’s young wife is repeatedly referred to as a child or pet; Beatrice, however, is described as his equal. The untimely demise of the child bride allows Lennox to rectify his early mistake and embark upon a more fulfilling marriage.