It takes a few stories to get there, but I want to make it clear that the relationship that is building between our three leads is one of chosen family. This is a concept that a lot of our audience finds very resonant, as the ability to choose to surround oneself with those people one loves gives many people a lot of strength. That’s the feeling I want to capture between Mary, Mrs. Hawking, and Nathaniel as their relationships form and grow.
Family in the traditional sense is a contentious concept for these characters. Mary’s mother and father were too wrapped up in their own problems to pay much attention to her beyond expecting her to make herself useful. She tries not to hold it against them, but she they never made her feel like she mattered. For Mrs. Hawking, family is the chain that keeps her tied to her husband’s people, between whom there is a mutual disapproval and dislike. And her father, the only blood relation she ever knew, is probably the person she hated most in the world. Nathaniel is the only one among them with a positive relationship to his family, but because of it, it is important to him that he can extend the definition of that world to include all the people he cares for most.
The idea that deep bonds could form between these sorts of people are not expected in this culture. A mistress and her servant, an aunt and her nephew by marriage, a wealthy gentleman and the house girl? Not people who are expected to grow close and come to love each other. But each of them finds themselves drawn to one another as their particular emotional needs and the extraordinary experiences they share make them the only possible people who could fill those roles to each other. They are, after all, becoming partners in a dangerous and secret enterprise. They can’t tell other people what they do. They can’t talk about it with anyone else. They’re in this alone together, and that can’t help but make ties. So we find ourselves observing a very unconventional sort of brother and sister doing their best to win the approval of a very complicated mother figure.
Make no mistake, I am not trying to cast Mrs. Hawking in a “maternal” light. It is pretty firmly established that is not part of who she is, and that a great part of her struggle in society is seeking the freedom to be able to cast that notion off. But she and Mary come to fill each other’s respective voids in that sense. Mary never had a strong female role model who cared for her and wanted to teach her to come into her own, while Mrs. Hawking never had a person for whom she wanted to protect or held shape into the next generation.
As for Nathaniel, he may have an okay relationship with his real dad, but the father figure who he connected to much more strongly was his uncle the Colonel. Their bond led him to want a connection with Mrs. Hawking as well, the person his uncle loved most in the world. And it’s important enough that he’s willing to work for it. The way he and Mary so desperately seek her esteem makes it clear the light that they see her in.
The last relationship is Mary and Nathaniel, perhaps the most unexpected of all for their time and place. As shared struggle creates connections, the work it takes to adapt to the new challenges of heroic life make a friendship grow, as well as the fact that they don’t have many people in their lives they can be frank about their feeling with. It almost makes me sad to think of when people will inevitably slash the characters as fandom is wont to do, because romance is importantly not part of this. Their connection comes from a mutual reliance and respect that does not require attraction or demand to be maintained, nor can it be broken even in times of strife. Your family is always your family, and they become the brother and sister that neither of them ever had.
Each leg of the triangle forms for its own reasons, but the connections make them a family. The people who love you the most, and are capable of hurting you most, with all the support and conflict that any family has.