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Louisa May Alcott – Good Wives

Book Cover

Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part Two. Part One received its own post last week.

‘Cos I can’t help falling in love with you.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1869
Date Reviewed: 11th July 2019
Rating: 5/5

We open with a marriage: having fallen in love with Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, Meg is getting married. It will be an interesting time for the family as all four daughters grow older and find their place in the world. Meg will want to make a good home for herself and John, Jo will want to write and travel, Amy will want to improve her art and find riches, and Beth just wants to feel like herself again. Meanwhile, Laurie will go to college as Jo wants him to, hoping to find success in doing what she wishes.

Good Wives takes us back to the March family and their friends, beginning a few years after the curtain fell in Part One. With a bit more plot and time away from home, whilst it has many aspects that will not please readers of the first Part, it succeeds in being incredibly thoughtful and an extremely good work in terms of both its general literary value and its value as a contextual look into Alcott’s life and dreams.

The novel is both a regular continuation of a story, and Alcott’s rebuke of the idea of marriage and the resulting lack of agency women of the period experienced. The rebuke involves passages that suggest a not-so-veiled personal affront she felt from readers about her life; whilst Alcott may not have made note of such in her journals, certainly the content of the novel’s text speaks directly her audience.

To speak of the idea of marriage first, none of the marriages in this book are particularly convincing. Whilst Meg’s marriage gets more time in terms of a show of the domestic space and post-honeymoon period, and the character John Brooke, Meg’s husband, was a part of Part One and thus was somewhat developed prior to the union, both Jo and Amy’s marriages are decidedly lacklustre. Debates abound regarding the suitability of both these marriages, which revolves around the fact that Alcott matches the wrong man to one of the women, with the woman he should have married later marrying a person who rightly or wrongly is consigned to be largely forgotten by readers. Whilst Amy’s marriage has enough of a backstory and prior development of the characters for the readers to understand what might happen later on, Alcott’s effective shoe-horning of Mr Bhaer into the story makes an already bad thread worse.

Alcott’s effective overturning of what would be the most natural and expected conclusion to the story is surely a further effect – following the inclusion of marriage in itself – of Alcott’s not wanting to go along with the social mores and expectations of the time and culture she lived in.

We see this first, perhaps, during the wedding ceremony for Meg and John, wherein Meg gives the first kiss to her mother, an inappropriate action if ever there was one, a fact which Alcott makes reference to in her narration. From there, whether we consider the kiss part of the problems or not, Alcott devises communication problems that led to resentment, wherein Meg is overwhelmed and bored of being in the home whilst John enjoys himself but doesn’t know what to do to change it. Alcott knows exactly what they should do; she has Meg go to her mother for advice. It’s a very basic issue that one would expect the couple to be able to work out themselves, but in contriving the scene Alcott makes Meg have to talk to Marmee about it instead.

Is there something in this defaulting to Marmee over relationship issues when it comes to Alcott’s dislike of marriage? Marmee’s advice had been sought before, but its inclusion in the daughters’ romantic relationships brings in a different aspect. In 2014, Sarah Rivas, then an MA student, proposed the concept of the ‘Cult of Marmee’, in which the four March daughters’ lives revolve around what Marmee thinks. This explanation has a lot going for it; the enmeshment and inability to do much if anything independent of Marmee’s views and wishes pervades both Parts of the book. The subject is too vast to be included further in this post, but Rivas’ point stands together with what we can see of Alcott’s use of marriage in Good Wives, this usage of something her readers had reportedly asked for in a sequel to their new favourite book, but twisted into a version that would help Alcott as she struggled with everything that marriage in her era meant for women’s agency.

Alcott does not mince her words. When speaking of the effects of marriage, she is always brazen, honest, and takes no prisoners. The following quotation is included during a scene which looks at Meg’s life after having given birth:

In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married, when ‘Vive la Liberte!’ becomes their motto. In America, as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most of them might exclaim, as did a very pretty woman the other day, “I’m as handsome as ever, but no one takes any notice of me because I’m married”.

Clearly Alcott saw the alternative used in France – where a woman could be married yet not burdened by domesticity – and liked it.

Of the second aspect of Alcott’s rebuke, the personal affront she saw, there is much to go on, all of it related to scenes revolving around Jo. Jo is largely based on Alcott herself, and as Alcott was a writer who did not marry, so too was Jo supposed to write and remain single. We see the beginnings of it all here:

Now, if she [Jo] had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn’t a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested.

Themes beyond those discussed involve the American slave trade and slavery, an important topic that may nevertheless become forgotten for its seeming lack of inclusion; in Good Wives, Alcott’s support of abolition isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as her thoughts of female agency, but there is some diversity in terms of equality:

Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind regardless of rank, age, or color.

The Alcott family in general did not support slavery and actively sought to help black people in difficult situations. We know from Ednah Cheney’s edited collection of Louisa’s journal and letters, published in 1889, that Louisa’s mother hid a fugitive slave in the family’s oven (p. 137).

Alcott’s decision to have Jo become a teacher of sorts is the way in which the author includes her own beliefs. Jo takes a ‘quadroon’ boy (a historic term for a person who is one-quarter black, often fathered by a plantation owner) into her school and it’s noted by Alcott that no one else would likely have taken the boy in. In light of this passage in the book, Sands-O’Connor (2015) says that Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson, had welcomed an African-American child into his school, and, due to this decision, the other pupils left and the school failed. We see, then, the way that the seemingly simple couple of sentences by Alcott about Jo’s acceptance of a child, and the fact that Jo’s school continues to be successful, is a direct response to a real life experience and likely an effort to make things right in the only way the author could.

Alcott was a nurse during the Civil War and wrote about her experiences in a book she called Hospital Sketches. According to Sands-O’Connor, she’d been viewed poorly by a fellow nurse for cuddling an African American baby; she later revised her nursing account to make it more nationally acceptable. The publisher of that book was the one who asked Alcott to write a children’s book and they said at the time that Alcott was not to include anything that would increase racial tensions (ibid.).

This accounts for why the racial equality in Good Wives remains a glimmer. Sands-O’Connor sums it up well: Alcott had learned from past experience what it meant to be a public supporter of abolition, and she needed the independence the money from her book would bring in (ibid.). This also accounts for why, in the first Part, we have a father going off to serve as a chaplain in the Civil War without any discussion of the war itself, only his physical wounds.

Good Wives continues the topic of the publishing industry and literary trends that was started in Part One; now that Jo is older and more like the adult Alcott, the information is detailed and incredibly telling.

“But Mr. Allen says, ‘Leave out the explanations, make it brief and dramatic, and let the characters tell the story,'” interrupted Jo, turning to the publisher’s note.

The above matches with what we know about Alcott’s writing; it fits in with what the two Parts do, except that Alcott narrates more than she lets the characters themselves tell the story. There are other passages like this, including one wherein Jo lets her family critic her work.

As Jo continues with her writing, so does Alcott continue on with her book-about-books. This Part contains many more references than the first; Charles Dickens is a favourite and Alcott includes myriad plays and poems, an influence, perhaps, of her adventures abroad.

The use of travel in this book expands on that in Part One in the way that it increases in its interest and scope. Like in the first book, Alcott ascribes some of her own journeys to some one else, the extent of her own travels being enough to make content for a number of characters’ storylines. We travel to Europe, to New York, and see glimpses of other places. The travels are undoubtedly a highlight of the book in terms of pure enjoyment, the cultural and other historical detailing vibrant and informative, the storytelling open and abundant.

It is unfortunate for Alcott that whilst Good Wives may have done well in her time, the use of domesticity aligning with what her contemporaries wanted, it is impossible to say it is quite as loved now, no matter how much it is still read. The choices she made for her characters are often understandably questioned; without all the historical context and even with it, it’s hard to finish the book feeling completely satisfied with where she takes her characters. It’s difficult not to wonder how the story might have flowed had Alcott been in a more liberal society; undoubtedly she would appreciate the debates we have today. The book is surely one of the best examples of the affects of society on an author’s output for all the reasons mentioned above and more. But it’s also just a very good book, enjoyable for what it says and does and an incredible primary source for the author herself. It may not satisfy the want for a solid story but it well satisfies everything else – it is arguably best read for both enjoyment and in its literary context concurrently.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Rivas, Sarah (2014) Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood – The Cult of Marmee and Little Women, Scientia et Humanitas, Vol 4, pp. 53-64
Sands-O’Connor, Karen (2015) Her Contraband: Diversity and Louisa May Alcott, The Race To Read, accessed 9th July 2019.

 
Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

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Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part One. Part Two, also known as Good Wives, will be discussed in a separate post.

Playing the part but not without diversions.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1868
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

The four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their mother – are living in relative poverty; their father had been let down by people whose businesses he had invested money in. Now it’s Christmas, and Mr March is serving as a chaplain in the American Civil War. As the girls look towards a lacklustre season and future, their mother reminds them of what they do have – a home and each other – and as time goes on, the four take it on board and live life to the full, making friends with the boy and his grandfather next door, working for money, and loving each other.

Little Women is a book of family, hope, and love, and all those wonderful things we still long for today.

Looked at in the context of our 21st century, it must be said that the book is fairly low on content. Alcott herself disliked some of the book, which she had written under pressure from her publisher1; her publisher also found the first chapters very dull and it was only after a young girl read the book, and following this the manuscript was passed to others, that it was given the go ahead for publication (Wikipedia, n.d. a). After this it became a bestseller and Alcott was asked by readers to finish off the story which she did swiftly – hence Part Two. (Perhaps the pressure was the reason Alcott chose to make the book semi-autobiographical. Little Women is based on the author and her sisters: Alcott is Jo – her life, personality, and the language of her letters are very similar to that of her character’s – and Amy her artistic sister May who became well-known; thus it was likely very easy to write. Certainly a lot of both Little Women and Good Wives mirrors her life – some things she writes about as the experiences of the others were in fact her own experiences2.)

The book is little difficult today. The most obvious issue is the sugary sweet nature of it, what we might think of as too goody-goody and overly wholesome, but a full reading shows off the moral values that we don’t adhere to so much any more. Whilst the love of family and being kind within the unit are still very relevant, the wish for girls to be interested in house and home beyond all else has largely become a thing of the past, and therefore in a way, it is far better to read this book as a product and example of its time than it is anything else; this is to say that the values it promotes for children, particularly girls, are often irrelevant, some even potentially harmful as we move away from the idea that women should be polite and modest beyond all else; thus it may no longer be wholly appropriate for the target age it was written for, but an older child and adult readers will appreciate the novel for what it is. (Children can of course still read it, but support of parents in terms of questions they may have will be required for many and would be beneficial for reasons above and beyond questions of morality.) We should perhaps look to a near-contemporary opinion of the book for guidance: editor Ednah Cheney noted in her commentary that ‘One of the greatest charms of the book is its perfect truth to New England life. But it is not merely local; it touches the universal heart deeply’ (Cheney, 1889, p. 190).

And Cheney is right about its charm; the use of place, albeit that most often scenes take place in only one or two houses, is lovely. Rather like the Anne Of Green Gables series in terms of life on Prince Edward Island in Canada (a book that was published just less than half a century later), Little Women shows well life for the average person in New England – Concord, Massachusetts, to be exact, if we trust that Alcott’s hometown is the setting. It introduces us to the general atmosphere of the place and the diversity of society in its nextdoor neighbour set up of a newly poor family residing beside a rich one, and the way Mrs March visits the homes of families who are even worse off than her own. As well as this, despite the fact that it could be something not so much universal as simply important to Alcott, the book shows the humanity and humility in charity, helping those worse off than oneself, putting others ahead of your own comfort. This is where Amy, otherwise a bit frivolous and vain, shines, adding a subtly to Jo’s more obvious acts of kindness.

Where the domesticity and general life goals of the March family do not match with us today, there is a bright light in Josephine. Alcott’s writing of Jo as a personality match for herself means that Jo’s independent nature and dreams for her future have more relevance than before; Jo is known for having inspired girls of the time, with Alcott providing both the social norm of domesticity and an instance of the value in having individual identities3 but our present day wider acceptance of female agency, and our drive for it, makes Jo perhaps the most resonant character for all. And the slight to moderate gender nonconformity (it’s hard to say exactly how much due to Alcott’s limitations) has surely more worth today than ever before, bringing in new conversations that would have been unthinkable in Alcott’s time (though quite possibly welcomed by the author if they could have happened).

Continuing on that positive note and offering a reversal of something that has already been said, the quietness, that lack of action and the dull quality that Alcott and her publisher found – as much as it’s a drawback it is also a major highlight of the book. The relative solitude of the family and their limited times away from home does well to remind us of the value to be found in a more laid-back way of life – or just a laid-back few days. Time full to the brim with busy-ness and travel is excellent, but a ‘staycation’, to use an instantly-recognisable example, can be just as wonderful if for very different reasons. There are treasures in life’s monotony.

It is due to this that Alcott’s lack of any plot – in its formal terms – and her concentration on characterisation and conversation over all else works. The everyday hobbies of piano playing and games of make-believe are enjoyable to read. And as much as some of the traits of the characters can be difficult – anyone who has worked for weeks or months on a hobby could be forgiven for feeling that Jo is hard done by by the author in the episode of Amy’s revenge – they slowly work their way into your heart.

The book-about-books factor is omnipresent. A fan of Dickens and other authors of her time, Alcott peppers her work with references both obvious and, to our time almost 200 years in the future, more vague. (Of Dickens the references are particularly plentiful and to no surprise – Alcott and her friends made a point of seeing the English author on stage when in Europe4 – however the novel also pays a fair debt to Puritan writer John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, including the book as an item the girls own that they use in their favourite imaginary games. Away from the Bunyan, the various book references span centuries and include both timeless classics and bestsellers of the day.

It wouldn’t be wrong to speculate that with the continued passing of time, Little Women will inch towards being viewed less for its story and more for its great value in terms of the history it includes of time and place, the further movements towards gender equality and female independence and choice, the extremely detailed information it offers on the life and opinions of its author, and the slight material on the trends in publishing at that time, which when placed beside Alcott’s letters and journals is a vast amount5. Certainly questions already abound the Internet as to the suitability of the novel for children – especially girls – in terms of content as well as language; you do have to be on the ball and in the know if you’re to catch the various references that will give you a better idea of how a reader in the 1800s would have understood and received it.

This book has never been out of print and it’s not hard to see why. Suitably ending with a note that suggests the not-so-neatly-tied threads can be undone for another book if the reader so desires, and with all its morals and background, its purpose was achieved and then some. It may not tick every literary box or every reader box today but it ticks more than enough of them. It is fun, it is sweet, and for all the reliance on Alcott’s particular Christian denomination, its lessons are of worth to all.

A note on the religious aspect: the debt owed to The Pilgrim’s Progress pervades the book (even the chapter headed ‘Vanity Fair’ is more about a place in Bunyan’s novel than it is Thackeray – ‘more’ because Alcott liked Thackeray, too, and Thackeray’s own use of the name was due to Bunyan). As much as Little Women isn’t called a Christian book, it well could be, however it’s more along the lines of The Lord Of The Rings than The Chronicles Of Narnia, the religion there for the taking if you have the wish or knowledge – it’s a long way from being pushed on you.

Footnotes

1 In her edited collection of Alcott’s journals and letters, published in 1889, Ednah Cheney includes this entry:
“September, 1867 – Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls’ book. Said I’d try. … Began at once on both new jobs; but didn’t like either.”
The editor follows this up with a commentary: ‘…in May, 1868, they [the publishers] repeated the request through her father, who had brought to them a collection of short stories for publication. Miss Alcott’s fancy had always been for depicting the life of boys rather than girls; but she fortunately took the suggestion of the publisher, and said, like Col. Miller, “I’ll try, sir.” The old idea of “The Pathetic Family” [this appears to be her description of her own family] recurred to her mind; and she set herself to describe the early life of her home. The book was finished in July, named “Little Women,” and sent to the publishers, who promptly accepted it, making Miss Alcott an outright offer for the copyright, but at the same time advising her not to part with it. It was published in October, and the result is well known. She was quite unconscious of the unusual merit of the book, thinking, as she says, the first chapters dull, and so was quite surprised at her success. “It reads better than I expected,” she says; and she truly adds, “We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds, that will be the reason of it.”‘(pp 186, 189-190)
2 Louisa travelled to Europe, seeing all the sights she would later ascribe to another sister/character.
3 Wikipedia (n.d. a) says, with a quotation from Alcott scholar Joy Kasson: ‘In the 1860s, gendered separation of children’s fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles as social constructs “as class stratification increased”.’ The page continues, quoting Barbara Sicherman: ‘After reading Little Women, some women felt the need to “acquire new and more public identities”, however dependent on other factors such as financial resources. While Little Women showed regular lives of American middle-class girls, it also “legitimized” their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities.’ These comments cover both Parts of the book combined into one – it could be argued, considering the notes about dreams and possibilities, that they are most relevant to the second, but this is not exclusive.
4 ‘Went to a dinner-party or two, theatres, to hear Dickens read, a concert, conversazione and receptions, seeing English society, or rather one class of it, and liking what I saw.’ (Alcott, 1866, in Cheney, 1898, p. 183)
5 Good Wives unarguably takes the publishing trends and readership information a lot further, resulting in a fair overview of the time.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) Little Women, accessed 4th July 2019
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) The Pilgrim’s Progress, accessed 3rd July 2019

 
Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

Book Cover

They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Woman In The Lake

Book Cover

Too beautiful to lose. Too dark to keep.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45694-5
First Published: 26th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2019
Rating: 4/5

Lady Isabella Gerald would like her husband dead. Lord Gerald is a bully, an adulterer, and involved in shady practices; and he is often violent towards her. Meanwhile Isabella’s maid, Constance, isn’t as silly and sweet as Isabella thinks she is – in fact Constance is spying on her Lady for her Lord. One day, Isabella declines to wear the new dress her husband has bought her; after raping her he tells Constance to destroy the dress. But Constance doesn’t destroy it, although its presence seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. Centuries later, young Fen Brightwell visits Lydiard House, but upon walking into one of the rooms she finds herself alone; there’s an angry man in the next room, who is dressed in historic clothes and screaming at her to take away the dress that is lying there. She does so, and keeps it. Years later, after an abusive marriage and the death of the grandmother she lived with, the dress comes back into her life, together with thoughts and propensities she thought she’d left behind.

The Woman In The Lake is an appropriately fast-paced novel full of secrets and crime. Set in two time periods – the 1760s and the present day – it doesn’t use time travel/slip to the same extent as Cornick’s previous two dual-plot novels, instead spending time on both eras equally, the extra time afforded by the relative lack of travel spent on a stunning few ideas that slowly become more complex and exciting.

The story is good but it is specifically Cornick’s construction and execution of the various elements that makes this book what it is. The novel is like a whodunnit doubled, or even tripled; the amount of thought and planning that’s gone into it is obvious and it is as much this easy-to-see display of composition as the actual effect of it that makes the reading experience so vibrant.

This remains true even on those occasions wherein secrets and answers are predictable (sometimes they’re not hidden from you at all). The predictable nature of a fair number of plot and character elements may seem at first a drawback; but it’s not. Cornick has populated her novel with a fairly standard number of main and secondary characters but because she’s brought the use of secrets to them all – some more than others, of course – those secrets that are predictable are often of the sort that you need to know to be able to work out others. And even if you do work out more secrets than you may have been expected to, you’ve still got that complexity of the writing itself to enjoy.

The use of history is brilliant, and where it turns to historical fantasy it’s well thought out. You may need to suspend a bit of belief but that is part and parcel – if you’re happy reading a book where someone slips back in time, you’re going to be okay with the rest of it.

So there is a lot about the process to like about this book, and it could well be the best part, but the rest is right up there. The plot is paramount in general; the characters each in their turn bring the focus to their small section of the world, their individual lives within the whole. Cornick uses some social history here, particularly the alcohol smuggling that went on in Swindon, and then there’s Lydiard House and the parkland; in a break from her work in this genre so far, she populates her locales with fictional characters for both eras, using Lydiard Park and its past inhabitants for inspiration and spinning her own story from there. (A word about Lydiard House: Cornick’s history about the house as its own entity is based in facts – the council owns it now and it’s open to visitors. The council uses the upper floor for meeting rooms and so forth, so the bedroom as a museum piece is downstairs, a recent creation, as are other rooms that may have been upstairs; this is to say that if Fen’s visit confuses you at all, this is the reason. I wrote about the House and Park last year, including photos.)

The characters are good, but considering everything discussed so far, you may not find in them much to take away; they do each propose things to consider and the historical people provide food for historical thought but it is those ‘things’ that will likely stand out to you most, the characters interesting enough but more of a vehicle for the plot. No one is particularly winsome, however this is part of the point of the narratives. The historical characters are mostly loathsome, even those who have been treated badly aren’t very nice, and the present-day characters have many flaws to their traits; Cornick’s tale looks beyond perfections and dreamy heroes, in fact you may not be one hundred percent sure about any of the relationships or friendships. It’s a good reflection of reality and often also a good reflection of humanity in general. (The narrative is written from four points of view as a whole, with three taking the majority of the time.)

Domestic abuse is an important thread in both of the narrative eras with different stories behind them, the differences in society weaving into them in their own ways. In conjunction with this, Fen’s life includes a lot of child neglect, which combines with her married past. Cornick looks at Fen’s experiences as a fact-of-the-matter – Fen’s been hurt, and still is hurt, but it’s been happening for so long that emotions are largely off the table. It’s a hard-hitting tale that Cornick is careful not to tie up too neatly – some people never change.

The Woman In The Lake is a spooky book, a somewhat Gothic tale, that might just keep you up a bit longer than you’d thought, the story taking twists you may not have seen coming in terms of the way the characters deal with them, and Cornick being unapologetic in her writing of it. This is a solid work of fiction, factual when needed and when it works with the fantasy, and fantastical where it fits. It looks a various concepts with care and consideration. But most of all, it’s simply chock full of good literary action.

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Maria Edgeworth – Belinda

Please note that this is a review of the Third edition with conjecture added in light of the First and Second. The First and Second editions include the marriage of a black servant and a white servant, but the Third edition changes the black man to a white man. This article provides more details; the sum of it is what you’d expect – Edgeworth’s ideas were too revolutionary for our ancestors, which unfortunately included her father. Also in the First and Second, Belinda almost marries a different person than she does in the Third. Project Gutenberg’s edition, which is where Girlebooks source their material from, appears to be the Third (I’ve used Girlebooks’ book cover). Oxford World Classics uses the Second. There is an additional publication on Amazon that states it uses the First.

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Dear Emma Woodhouse, thank you for your kind offer, but I’ve got that life-stage covered.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1801; 1810 (third edition)
Date Reviewed: 24th May 2019
Rating: 3/5 (third edition rating; given the content differences, I’d likely give the other editions 4/5)

Mrs Stanhope’s match-making is the stuff of legends; the lady has managed to get 6 nieces husbands, using wily and pressure tactics to land rich men – or at least that’s how society sees it all. Belinda is her last niece; everyone knows how this will go – but to everyone’s surprise, Belinda is sent to stay with Lady Delacour, a well-known wealthy woman with a good few enemies (what 21st century people might call frenemies). As well as this change in tactic, Belinda herself seems at odds with the Stanhope ‘teachings’.

Belinda is one of the later novels by a popular author of the 1700s-1800s. Whilst less known today, Egdeworth was a favourite of her contemporaries and the generation that followed; Jane Austen cited Belinda in Northanger Abbey, and clearly borrowed aspects of the story for her own.

When people speak of Edgeworth today they most often talk of the book she published a year prior to BelindaCastle Rackrent – and her other novels that deal with political issues. There is good reason for this; whilst the Anglo-Irish writer wrote a lot of good material, Belinda is quite the non-entity, despite its foresight in regards to race and dysfunctional families.

Most obviously, perhaps, is the fact that this book isn’t really about Belinda; it is about everyone else. It does revolve around her in a way – the balance is just about in favour of the actions and reactions in the book being in some way due to her presence, but she herself is a bit-player in a drama about other people. Despite being a living, breathing, person, Belinda has less pages spent on her than does Rebecca de Winter. Perhaps Edgeworth’s point is similar to Du Maurier’s but she doesn’t have the story to keep it up, at least not in the context of what we expect from a novel today.

The ‘star’ of the show, then, is Lady Delacour – quite apt, you might say, considering everyone in society knows her, her notoriety helping Belinda, who is an unknown quantity and regarded only in relation to her disliked aunt. Lady Delacour is a good character in terms of fictional interest – she has a lot more going for her in terms of content, with more dialogue, opinions, and the like, than Belinda, but she’s also very difficult to get on with. She fits a certain stereotype, the one of ladies from yesteryear needing smelling salts and finding things all too much to handle, but in Lady Delacour the stereotype is turned up high. The drama and attention-seeking, irritating as they are, are not a match for the child neglect that becomes apparent as the book continues. Prior to the book’s beginning, Lady Delacour farmed off her young daughter Helena to someone else; essentially Lady Delacour did not understand her and made no effort to change that. As Helena re-enters her mother’s life at Belinda’s suggestion, whilst her mother starts to acknowledge that, perhaps, Helena is worth knowing (“I did not know Helena was worth loving”), she also demeans the girl and creates a home situation that we would now call ‘walking on egg shells’. Edgeworth does address the whole situation in the form of commentary: ‘Lady Delacour,’ she writes ‘was governed by pride, by sentiment, by whim, by enthusiasm, by passion – by anything but reason’ and addresses certain aspects separately through dialogue; but it doesn’t quite make up for the difficulties of the character in terms of readability. This all said, there are times when Lady Delacour is a genuinely good character, times when she finally stops trying to get the spotlight on herself, and these moments are excellent. She is also the chief – really the only – person who provides the light, comedic, aspect of the novel. Certainly it could be said the novel should bear her name; the reason it does not is that Belinda is the catalyst for the change she undergoes.

“As to that, said Clarence, “I should be glad that my wife were ignorant of what everybody knows. Nothing is so tiresome to a man of any taste or abilities as what every body knows. I am rather desirous to have a wife who has an uncommon than a common understanding.”

Another character who has more page time than Belinda is Clarence Hervey. Early on and a fair way through the book, Clarence is a good enough character; he’s not exactly memorable and it’s difficult to see what people see in him – Belinda herself seems half completely taken by him and half completely indifferent – but it essentially ‘works’. However in the latter half of the novel he undergoes a personality change; whilst not something previously delved into, nevertheless Clarence’s preference for a wife (a woman who is a blank slate on which he can impose his teachings) is effectively a device Edgeworth employs to do – well, it’s hard to say. Clarence’s change brings some more content into the book (a Dickensian word count issue?), but as Edgeworth brings the book to a close, she makes another change so that Clarence doesn’t end it looking as awful as she had been making him. It’s hard to feel actively against Clarence because it’s really not his fault – it’s Edgeworth’s – but his taking on as a ward a girl who has been isolated from the world by a paranoid grandmother, and continuing that isolation whilst bringing in a governess to mould her into what he wants in a wife, which includes changing her name because he doesn’t think it suits her (the girl is in her late teenage years) is pretty horrific. There is a slight commentary here, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but unlike Lady Delacour’s actions, Clarence’s are never held up to scrutiny except by himself, momentarily. And the girl – Rachel, who he calls Virginia after a character in a (real) book, and who is referred to by this new name by Edgeworth herself – is understandably obedient, knowing no other way to be. Clarence is the patronising aspect of Austen’s Henry Tilney, exaggerated; he’s Newland Archer without Wharton’s stunning ending.

Hot on Clarence’s heels both literally and figuratively is Mr Vincent. Mr Vincent, another of Belinda’s suitors, is Creole; when this book is written about academically, his inclusion is often the subject. Mr Vincent brings with him from the West Indies his black servant, Juba, who is considered with more kindness and less prejudice than black people in many other books of the period, providing a bit of a relief from other narratives. But then comes the word I’ve used, ‘figuratively’ – whilst Juba escapes any form of authorial sanctions, Mr Vincent is, like Clarence, given a personality change so that Edgeworth can take the story where she wants it to go. Edgeworth does at least use Mr Vincent’s vice to inform another character’s actions, and he is effectively repatriated into the novel, but like Clarence, it’s difficult to move on from it. Certainly, had Edgeworth not fouled the characters of the two rivals for Belinda’s heart, the book would have been much better.

(Conjecture on my part: as Edgeworth’s changes are so illogical, this situation of personality change may well be due to the changes Edgeworth made for the Third edition.)

Where Belinda works, then, beyond the patches of good commentary and characterisation discussed above, is in a few areas not yet considered. Let’s pull out that idea of inspiration and Austen again – Belinda can be filed under the same category as Northanger Abbey when it comes to the perspective from which it’s written – it’s less overt than Austen’s story but Edgeworth’s is also a book about books, a book about the process of writing in the context of the time, wrapped in a thin sheet of theatre:

“My dear Miss Portman [Belinda], you will put a stop to a number of charming stories by this prudence of yours – a romance called the Mysterious Boudoir, of nine volumes at least, might be written on this subject, if you would only condescend to act like almost all other heroines, that is to say, without common sense.”

Suffice to say the very last sentences of the book are exceptional in their effect.

Of books and their value, and Edgeworth’s commentary on Clarence’s awfulness, Rachel is allowed to read romances because they’re considered worthless and thus nothing to worry about… Edgeworth follows the concept glanced at by Charlotte Lennox, both authors paving the way for the author whose name I’ve noted far too many times already.

Belinda’s sense of agency, in a time when such a thing for women wasn’t often considered, is also very good. Though aided in turn by Lady Delacour, Belinda’s decisions – bold, even brave – are her own from the outset (it’s what helps set her apart from her aunt’s marriage mill) and comments on it are left to the other characters, meaning that the decisions are generally accepted, if after a small shock, and after discussion (that is usually with Lady Delacour who is herself very independent – though married – and not always interested in going along with what society thinks). Edgeworth’s silence speaks volumes; a woman, or at least some women, should chose for herself.

Lastly there is the contrast to Lady Delacour’s situation with Helena, provided by the family Helena lives with (people who the Lady inevitably dislikes), a forward-thinking, fairly equal-minded group of people who don’t get nearly as many words as they ‘should’ but are wonderful to read about. Edgeworth actively compares them to the Delacours, citing the ways they are different.

So there is plenty to like about Belinda, it’s just that the good isn’t enough to out-way the bad, and there’s not enough interesting conversation to get past the era’s preference for conversation over action. If you’re after a broad sense of Edgeworth’s impact and writing, you’d do better to look at the books more commonly cited by today’s critics. Belinda is the book to read if you want to learn for yourself the specifics behind other writer’s novels and if you want to know about bestsellers of the past that have been largely forgotten. It is, of course, excellent for that. (And if you buy the Second edition from Oxford you’ll also have that benefit of reading about the interracial marriage.)

A word about the Oxford World Classics edition if you like contextual footnotes – although notes are included for a number of referenced books, people, and other things that have been lost to history, be aware that there are unfortunately many references that the editor has overlooked and so you may have to set aside a bit more time to fill in the gaps.

My asking a question in a review is a first: if you’ve read the first and/or second edition, could you comment in regards to the personalities of Clarence and Mr Vincent?

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