The story opens with the baptism of an infant, a foundling, presumed to have
been left by Gypsies in the garden of the Grays, a family of farm laborers. The sound of the baby's unusual name
is followed by a "sudden crash on the organ-pedals." Mr. Robins, the organist, is startled by what he believes to be
the christening of his grandchild. He is a man who "had some small independent means of his own, which he supplemented
by his small salary as organist, and by giving a few music lessons in the neighborhood."
Five years ago, his daughter Edith ran off "to London, without a word of sorrow or farewell to the father who had been so foolishly
fond of her." There she married Martin Blake, the local blacksmith's son. "It nearly broke her father's heart;
it made an old man of him... and it seemed to freeze or petrify all his kindliness and human sympathy."
Indeed, when the prodigal returns, with babe in arms, she finds no welcome.
Her father rejects her on the doorsteps of the church. (Like her father, Edith has had a failure of faith—she
left her open prayer book on her desk when she eloped.)
Edith begs him to take her daughter and christen her ZoŽ. "Just before
she was born... I was thinking of you and home and everything, that song of yours kept ringing in my head, 'Maid of Athens,'
and the last line of every verse beginning with ZoŽ.... words... you said meant, "My life, I love you;' and ZoŽ was
life... my old happy life with you, and make up to you for all the trouble her mother's been to you."
Mr. Robins rejects her plea leaving his daughter and grandchild, standing
in the rain under the yew-tree. Indeed, some weeks later, it is Mr. Robins himself who, finding an infant
on his doorstep, carries the child to the Gray's garden rather than have "Martin Blake's brat" imposed on him.
So goes the tale of gypsies, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, all
moving toward inevitable redemption in the end—an old story made fresh by a few surprises along the way and by detailed
and exquisitely phrased descriptions of life.
life—"the flame of life burns quicker and fiercer in London than at Downside."
provident—(human)/providential ("Providence" is reference for God in this
Views of Victorian life and culture:
economy—aspects of agricultural
economy are discussed. Many details of the Grays' household life and family economy are presented, sometimes with
a light touch of sarcasm, refuting the commonly held belief of the Victorian middle and upper classes that the difficulties
of the working poor were the result of laziness, drunkeness, dirtiness, or ignorance.
"Gray was only a laborer with twelve shillings a week and a couple of pounds
more at harvest, and of course, in bad weather there was no work and no wages, which is the rule among the agricultural laborers...
so it did not present itself as a grievance to Gray's mind, though, to be sure, in winter or wet seasons it was a hard matter
to get along. But it was neighbor's fare, and none of them felt hardly used, for Farmer Benson, what with bad seasons
and cattle plague, was not much better off than they were and the men knew it.
But out of the wages it was hardly to be expected of the most provident of
people that anything could be laid by for old age or a rainy day; indeed, there seemed so many rainy days in the present that
it was not easy to give much thought to those in the future. Of course, too, the local provident club had come
to utter and hopeless grief."
education—there are general
discussions of education, particularly in relation to the church and to musical tastes. The vicar, clergy of other
towns, Mr. Robins, Edith, Martin Blake, the Gray's sons either offer opinions regarding education or have their educations
The Gray's oldest son, Tom, "having managed at twelve to scramble into
the fifth standard, and at once left school triumphantly, and now can neither read nor write, having clean forgotten
everything drummed into his head..." is destined for the life of the farm laborer. The younger son, Bill, "as his
mother says, 'is enjoying bad health,' is not promising for farm-work; and, being fond of his book and a favorite
at school, his mother cherishes hopes of his becoming a school-teacher in days to come."
hymns, music, and comics songs—chapter two begins with an informative
and very readable discussion of musical tastes for worship and for entertainment, "penny-readings and village concerts."
Choir practice and Mr. Robins' organ-playing as emotional outlet, expression, and a form of prayer are also part of the descriptive
background of the tale.
Victorian language of flowers—roses
and gardenias in Edith's childhood bedroom from the garden tended by Jane Sand signify love and
true friendship, probably in reference to Jane's love and friendship which proves true. The color of the rose would
be significant and is not given; the red rose of romantic love would balance the anemones of the abandoned
wife. A bouquet of anemones and Czar violets await Edith's return to her room. Anemones signify forsakeness,
desertion—Edith is a deserted wife, also forsaken by her father. Czar violets (deep purple) mean "You occupy
my thoughts." Edith and her child have been the constant thought of both Jane Sand and her employer but a more
promising choice would have been yellow violets to represent rural happiness.
Edith and babe are rejected under a yew-tree signifying sorrow
(a biblical as well as a Victorian image).
The trees offer "a momentary illusion... of spring" during Mr. Robins walk
through the fields when he expects to bring ZoŽ home with him:
purple dogwood durability
(Am I indifferent to you?)
lowliness, envy, or remorse in this case, probably remorse
Victorian ideal of womanhood—lacking
in Edith but present is both the Robins' housekeeper, Jane Sand, and the farm laborer's wife, Mrs. Gray.
"...vanity is not a sufficiently lasting foundation for married happiness, especially when the cold winds of poverty blow
on the edifice, and when the superior sort of girl has not been brought up to anything useful, and cannot cook the dinner,
or iron a shirt, or keep the house tidy."
Fashion—"some of the lads
had developed into hobble-de-hoys and came to church with walking-sticks and well-oiled hair."