Empowering the Feminine: Interdependence in Mary Robinson's The Natural Daughter
In Mary Robinson’s The Natural Daughter, Martha’s engagement in interdependent behaviour is apparent in her involvement with other people, occupations, and society as well as the social structures within the novel. Despite her individualistic self-determination, Martha is inherently drawn into mutual relationships with various people and institutions.
The first relationship Martha actively engages in is that between her and her father in the beginning of the novel during a family outing. Her father, Peregrine Bradford, calls for the assistance of a doctor for his gout while they are on holiday. Martha obviously depends on her father to support her until she finds a husband, and it is also clear after the doctor leaves that Mr. Bradford depends on Martha (whether or not he accepts it) for his well being. He disregards the doctors’ advice to eat, drink, and sleep moderately, and it is Martha who takes the initiative to further emphasize the danger of continuing against the doctor’s orders. Martha acts individually in this case in that both her mother and sister allow Mr. Bradford to continue living an unhealthy lifestyle. Martha’s concern is that her “father will kill himself” (Robinson 106) which is what eventually happens as Mr. Bradford dies from his excessive lifestyle. By extension, Mr. Bradford’s life depended on Martha, and he met his demise by devaluing her concern for his dire condition. Robinson uses this scenario to illustrate the harmful consequences of believing that women have “no business to think” (92), and that it is only their “duty to listen” (92).
In a comparison between Martha and Julia, Eleanor Ty asserts that Martha “acts upon her sympathies. Her sensibility moves her to benevolent action” (Ty 74-5), such as the kindness and generosity she extends to the wounded soldier early in the novel. The most significant example of Martha’s benevolence is caring for Frances when her mother has apparently abandoned her. The dependence that the infant Frances (Fanny) has to Martha is inherent in their guardian/child relationship, but Martha also depends on Fanny for an emotional outlet she does not get from her husband, love. That Martha’s love for Fanny is greater than that for her husband, Mr. Morely, is apparent in her refusal to abandon the infant at Mr. Morely’s direct command. Caring for Fanny in exchange for returning her love is a more important relationship for Martha than the security offered to her by Mr. Morely in exchange for her absolute obedience and subservience. Martha is determined to take care of Fanny despite Mr. Morely’s objection and his assertions that Martha is acting very much against the rules of society and disgracing both of them. Martha subscribes to an interdependent relationship with Fanny, and does so by her own personal desire with little regard for the consequences Mr. Morely tells her she will incur. Again, Martha is the only one in the scenario who has more interest in the well being of her mutual companion rather than what society expects of her.
Another example of Martha’s engagement in interdependence is her relationship with the widow Luisa Franklin. When Martha is forsaken by her mother and sister, a man named Mr. Dobson helps her by finding her employment as Lady Luisa’s dependent under the newly assumed name of Mrs. Denisen to protect her from having her reputation precede her. Martha was rendered alone with almost no money until she became the live-in companion to Lady Luisa. In this case, Martha is the one who depends on another for security and survival in an indifferent world while it is Lady Luisa who needs Martha for emotional support. Lady Luisa grieves deeply for her late husband and confides to Martha that “by participation it might be lightened” (Robinson 147). This essentially mean that lady Luisa is asking for Martha’s emotional support during a difficult time. However, despite Martha’s companionship, Lady Luisa only goes deeper into despair until Lionel Beacon begins to court her. Beacon’s reappearance in Martha’s life exposes her real identity to Lady Luisa as an object of scandal and is in effect fired.
Martha’s next chance for employment comes when Mrs. Sedgley offers her the chance to become a performing actress. Martha considers it to be “a profession which offers both fame and independence” (160). However, Martha’s career as an actress is actually based on an interdependent relationship between her and the theatre. Martha depends on the money that the theatre pays her to perform and the theatre depends on Martha’s fame and stage presence to obtain notoriety and therefore lucrative business. However, Gregory Leadenhead uses bribery and other influences to have the theatre company boycott Martha because her scandalous life as a strolling actress was the reason he and Julia, Martha’s sister, had to divorce lest the Leadenhead name be tarnished by its association with Martha. Martha is then forced from acting despite having become “successful as an actress because of her natural talents” (Ty 79), but had to give up because of her previous reputation.
The final occupation of Martha’s that will be covered on this topic is her attempt to earn money by selling a novel. In this case, the publisher depends on Martha’s novel to have something to sell and Martha depends on the publisher for money and the chance to have herself become know as a writer. However, the publisher, Mr. Index, pays her only ten pounds and gives her no credit for her novel once it is published and becomes a success meaning that Martha received no royalties.
In the end of the novel, we are left with the implied suggestion that Martha and Francis Sherville are going to get married. Upon his death, Mr. Morely left his entire fortune to Martha, so she does not need to marry Francis for security or survival, she marries him out of love. Francis genuinely loves Martha for who she is in a way that Morely never did. Rather than casting Martha out as a scandalous woman like so many else have thus far, Francis appears to be free from the social constructs that cause this because “her mental and personal graces had made an indelible impression on his mind” (145) rather than turn her away from her out of fear for the damage her scandalous life could do to his name. That Francis is able to see Martha outside of the social constructs that the rest of society sees her in is apparent when he asks himself: “why, why art thou thus exposed to persecution? Why do I behold such worth, such sensibility, the sport of sorrow, while the world is over-run with ignorance and vice?” (245). His recognition of the ignorance that is responsible for Martha’s incrimination is essential to why he is a suitable match for Martha and why they will be able to have a natural symbiotic relationship in marriage based on love and mutual respect for one another with no struggle for dominance. Francis is the enlightened man that Martha deserved and needed from the beginning.
Martha’s personal relationships with other people some of the various occupations that she takes on throughout the novel that she frequently led her to engagement in an interdependent relationship. Through her individual sense of determination, that does not limit itself to the convictions of society, is able to decide for herself whether what she is doing is right and even though she suffers consequences after, she ends up with what she needed. The main feminist theme of the novel is that life can be difficult for women in a society that is constructed against them, and that it is important not to accept what you are presented with until you are satisfied with the offer.
Robinson, Mary. “The Natural Daughter.” A Letter to the Women of England and The Natural Daughter. Ed. Sharon M. Setzer. Toronto: Broadview Literary Texts, 2003. Print.
Ty, Eleanor. Empowering the Feminine: The Narratives of Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie, 1796-1812. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Print.