Nelly Brooke (1868) is one of Florence Marryat’s earlier novels, written during the ascendancy of sensation fiction. The story tells of orphaned twins Nelly and Bertie Brooke, who live a frugal existence in the countryside with their taciturn grandfather and friendly dog, who has the unfortunate name of Thug. Bertie is an ill-tempered and ungrateful invalid who expects Nelly to be his companion and factotum. She is happy to oblige, sublimating her own needs in order to serve him.
The unexpected arrival of their wealthy cousin Nigel offers a glimmer of hope, especially when he develops a strong attachment to Nelly. However, Nigel’s mother is appalled by the prospect of a rustic daughter-in-law, although offers her a job as a lady’s companion on account of her endearing homemaking skills. Nigel disregards her views, but is forced to retreat when Bertie severs all links with him after discovering a serious family feud.
The death of their grandfather leaves the twins in worse financial straits, and Nelly is placed in a quandary when the repellent Dr Monkton proposes marriage. Bertie, imagining a life of comfort and ease commences a campaign of emotional blackmail, forcing her to accept. The Doctor silkily promises that he will look after her, Bertie and Thug, and that they shall want for nothing.
Nelly finds herself the doctor’s wife in a claustrophobic cathedral town. The Doctor’s sister, the venomous Mrs Prowse, resents the intrusion of this addition to the family and does all that she can to undermine her. As a country lass, Nelly blends in like an orange in a coal heap, and her husband is embarrassed by her failure to conform to protocol. It also becomes clear that his promises to care for Bertie and Thug were a simple ruse to get her to accept his proposal, and he repeatedly insults both and threatens to eject them from his house. Bertie, enraged at another man having legal mastery over his sister, deliberately provokes the situation, and the tension between the two men builds.
There is a dramatic showdown when Bertie encourages Thug to sleep on the Doctor’s favourite rug. Dr Monkton attempts to chain Thug, but the normally docile creature flies at his throat and then bites his hand. The incensed Doctor calls for his gun and shots Thug dead. Bertie is then ordered to leave the house immediately.
Nelly is completely distraught by the loss of all that she held dear and falls into a deep depression. A triumphant Mrs Prowse reminds her of her wifely duty, and Nelly makes an admirable attempt to resume normal activities. However, Dr Monkton’s manner towards her becomes increasingly odious and he threatens physical violence in order to make her into the wife he desires. Nelly tries her best to conform, but becomes frantic and distracted when she hears nothing from Bertie. She discovers that her husband has been concealing Bertie’s serious illness from her, and she escapes to London in order to find him.
On arrival, she encounters Cousin Nigel and learns that he has been caring for him at his house. He gets her there just as Bertie wheezes his last breath. The two cousins had enjoyed a reconciliation after the family feud was shown to have been based on a misunderstanding. Nigel and Nelly realise that she has little choice but to return to the home of her abusive husband. The Doctor, however, denies her access, and Nelly returns as an estranged wife to the village of her youth.
Meanwhile, it transpires that Thug was rabid when he bit his persecutor, who is now declining fast. The final ravings of hydrophobia alienate him from his few remaining allies, and he dies with only his sister to mourn his passing. Nelly is unmoved by her husband’s death, but still grief-stricken at the loss of her brother and beloved pet. She allows Cousin Nigel to marry her and take her off to Scotland, but insists that he cannot expect too much from her. Her melancholy persists for some time, but Nigel’s unconditional love and support encourage her to trust him, and they do indeed live happily ever after.
Although much of the plot is standard sensation novel fare, some of Marryat’s themes make Nelly Brooke interesting. It becomes apparent that the subtitle “A Homely Tale” is deeply ironic, and Marryat is clearly subverting the traditional domestic novel. Nelly is there to serve first her brother, then her husband. They both see her as their possession and, as such, to be under their control. She is denied any subjectivity until she remarries. Bertie, when the scales of self-interest fall from his eyes, realises that he made a “bad bargain” of her. Much reference is made to Dr Monkton’s legal rights over his wife, and he repeatedly reminds anyone who will listen that he can treat her as he likes.
The dominant theme of marital cruelty was what upset many contemporary reviewers, some of whom were worried it would deter young girls from marriage. Marryat denied charges of sensationalism, declaring that she wrote only of what she had herself experienced or read about in the newspapers. Monkton’s treatment of Thug is markedly a metaphorical representation of how he believed his wife should be controlled. He is repeatedly restrained, and threatened with a muzzle when he makes a noise. Marryat’s consideration of both animal and wife abuse prefigures some of the feminist debates of the 1870s, when campaigners such as Frances Power Cobbe argued that they were both manifestations of the abuse of patriarchal power.
Although the plot is neatly concluded with a second, and more felicitous, marriage, Marryat allows Nelly to show her true (unfeminine) feelings. She feels no remorse for the death of Dr Monkton (much to the disgust of some reviewers), and she makes it clear to Nigel that the marriage must be on her terms. Rather than being inordinately grateful for another opportunity to bag a husband, she insists that Nigel must earn her trust and respect before they can become a true partnership.