Robin (book #173)

book cover

Raymond Jacberns, 1901.

Raymond Jacberns was the pseudonym of Georgiana Ash (1886-1911), a clergyman’s daughter, who was very prolific in the first decade of the twentieth century. My copy of Robin has an inscription from 1910, a prize for Arthur Martin of Ely St Mary Sunday School. It also has a bookmark for the News of the World, BRITAIN’S LEADING NEWSPAPER and BEST REPORTS of all THE SPORTS.

Georgiana Ash is on the census in 1871 aged 4, living with her widowed mother, her aunt and her grandmother in Sussex. In 1881 she is living in Hastings with her mother. I can’t find her on the 1891 census. In 1901 she is living with a friend in Hastings, and in 1911 with the same friend (stated to be sharing expenses) in Battle. In this last census Ash gives her occupation as “Private Means, Authoress”. She died relatively young (45) after an operation.

I am tempted to say that Robin‘s plot is the only plot of late Victorian / Edwardian stories for girls. It’s certainly overwhelmingly frequent. The clue is in the four introductory quotations, one of which is about duty, one about love hallowing mundane tasks, and two about discontent.

Robin is an orphan who lives with her widowed uncle, her aunt (her uncle’s spinster sister) and her two girl cousins. She is nineteen when the book starts. It opens in a stirring manner with Robin angry about something in the news. We only get a passing reference, but it seems to be something about soldiers having to spend their own money on something: “‘it is a scandalous shame to expect the men to buy things out of their wretched pay'”. Robin’s cousin Phyllis tells her to “‘write to the War Office and tell them your valuable opinion is at their disposal'”.

Robin is energetic and “wanted to be doing something for her day and generation” – resolving injustices, nursing the sick, “fight[ing] the world’s miseries”:

As a very small child Robin had been discovered painstakingly teaching an equally small neighbour the intricacies of the A B C which she had just mastered herself. A little older she had started upon the education of the workhouse maid-of-all-work, and reduced that damsel to tears over the multiplication table. As a young girl, she had lavishly expended all her store of information on any one who would listen, and now, at the mature age of nineteen, the same old longing possessed her, to go out into the world and talk, and hear other people talking, and exchange ideas, and teach people – what, she could not have told, had she been asked – but teach them something of which they stood in need, and of which she herself possessed the knowledge.
The consciousness of latent power is not always conceit, and Robin had a very low opinion of her own powers indeed at times, but at other times it must be owned that she was rather trying, being at the present moment totally without sympathy for other people’s moods. If she was interested in a subject, be it the mismanagement of army matters, or the training of a puppy, she would work that subject to death, and then wonder pathetically why the world was cross, and would not be interested in anything that she cared about.

Robin wants to leave her uncle’s house to make her own way in the world, but he promised her mother that she would stay until she was 21. She is very cross about this and wants to work as a governess or nurse for the small children of a neighbour. Her uncle won’t allow this, but then an older child in the same family comes down with scarlet fever, so the children come to stay with Robin and her family. She is responsible for them for all but two hours a day six days a week (the under-housemaid takes charge for those two hours), at the nominal wage of ten shillings a week.

Jacberns realistically shows that Robin struggles with the children, not having either the ease or the authority with them that others have.

There are sub-plots about the love affair of one of Robin’s cousins (her almost-fiancĂ© loses his money) and about two new neighbours, sisters, the younger one being disabled. Robin influences the disabled sister to feel hard-done-by, which she had not previously, but comes to her senses, telling Robin “‘we have been created for His glory in this world, and for His glory in the life to come, and that therefore feelings, and disappointments, and crookeed backs, and dull days, and powerlessness to work as much as one would like, nothing of all that really matters one scrap'”.

The book reminds me of Yonge in that mistakes Robin makes really do led to almost-tragedies (though Yonge is darker). She makes one of her Sunday School scholars discontented, and as a result the girl, Fanny, runs away to London. Fortunately, although Fanny’s luggage and money are stolen, and the friend she had planned to go to has left London, she is helped to write home, is forgiven and returns home, “a depressed young person with a wholesome horror or London streets and London ways”. Robin, who felt guilty when the issue was in doubt, then feels “alternately disgusted with Fanny for having been such a poor-spirited creature as not to have battled through her difficulties unaided, and relieved that the episode had ended harmlessly”.

Longer-lasting effects come from Robin’s failure to discipline the children. They run away from her to see their mother, and infect Robin’s Aunt Priss with scarlet fever. Although she recovers, she is almost blind. This is the point of Robin’s transformation. She realises she has “a real call” and a duty to take over managing the house from her aunt – otherwise one of her cousins, both of whom are now engaged, would have to postpone marriage. She considers

Was it right that she should put aside the grand hopes she had built for the future, when she would be free to go into the world, unchecked and unhindered, free to work as she would, free to make the very best of her life as she could? Could it be right to bury herself in a quiet home, to spend the best part of her life tending two old people, making two old people happy? … Could she not do more good if she went out into the broader life, and worked there for God? … Was it, and that, after all, was the question that lay at the root of the whole matter – was it His will that she should do this, and if it was, had she the strength to do it ungrudgingly and will a cheerful heart?

Robin’s decision is never in doubt, and she receives the thanks and praise of her family. Her uncle asks “‘How about all the grand schemes for the future, Robin?'” and she replies “‘Twist them round and have grander ones still'”. I do wonder how it will work out and whether Robin ends up embittered and lonely. Obviously within the moral framework of this novel this cannot happen. She is 19 around 1901 (assuming the book is set at the time of publication) – the right generation to be involved in women’s suffrage activity later on; I would like to think of her as a lecturer finally having the chance to use her enthusiasm for putting the world to rights.


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