Okay, so, next up in my summer reading is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Lady of Quality. Anything by Burnett comes with a lot of baggage in this household, as her work is deeply beloved by the one of us who is not me. ^_^
But someone here, or on Twitter, or somewhere suggested this book, and I decided I’d give it a try. It’s left me feeling rather less than more happy, but not for the reasons you might presume. What will follow contains spoilers, so if you plan on reading this story, please do that first, then come back to read this review. Thanks.
The book is supposed to take place in the 1700s, following Clorinda Wildairs (note the cleverly allegorical name,) a child to a drunken lout of the lower nobility, who has been given every single possible blessing except money and good breeding. Raised by a wolf as she is, she still manages to be perfect. As you can imagine, that gets cloying after a while.
Clorinda begins life as a willful, unprincipled, yet beautiful and smart, child, who learns how to manipulate the household servants and, eventually, her father who on principle dislikes all of his children, because they are daughters. She grows up as one of the boys, and then manages to become one of the men of the household, going so far as to wear boy’s clothing. She is, of course, a better man than any man around her.
When Clorinda turns 15, she miraculously, suddenly, understands how also to be a better woman than any woman alive, despite having no role models or any guidance. She puts aside her boy’s clothes and turns to bettering herself as a woman. She is, of course, perfect. Ultimately she marries up….and when he dies, marries up again, and eventually has the perfect husband, and perfect children. There is only one imperfection in her life.
Her sisters were equally as unbeloved by their father, but of the two of them, Clorinda finds use for, then affection for, then love for, her sister Anne. (The other sister is ignored and eventually brushed off in a suitable, not terrible marriage.) About halfway through the novel, Anne starts to take up more space in the story.
And, about this time, we realize that there are, in fact, two imperfections in Clorinda’s life. One, we’re laboring under some misinformation. There was, early on, a rake and scoundrel introduced with the uncomfortable name John Oxon. For most of the story, we’re lead to believe that Clorinda had pretty much nothing but scorn for the guy and that his obsession with her is just sociopathic. Turns out, they were indeed lovers and that his obsession with her is indeed sociopathic. He’s a creep and I felt absolutely nothing at his death. Which is the other imperfection in Clorinda’s life. She was the hand of god that smote Oxon down for his sin of being a creep and getting in the way of Clorinda’s perfection.
As the pages of the novel come to a close, we suddenly realize that the title character was never Clorinda at all. It was always Anne. Oh, but don’t worry, Clorinda’s life remains perfect, except for that little manslaughter thing she did that no one ever needs to know.
Okay, so there were a lot of things that made this novel “not for me.” Burnett’s 19th-century version of 16th century English was convoluted and un-fun to read. It wasn’t nearly as constipated as Le Fanu’s sentence structure, just more RenFaire-ish. The ending was abrupt, the moral was…moral-like and the lesson I’m supposed to learn is what again? That the beautiful and willful get to have everything go their way always? For pity’s sake, would there be *anyone* reading this book who would rather be “shot sparrow”-eyed Anne who just dies at the end for no good reason rather than tall, strong, graceful, healthy, outspoken, lucky, powerful, beautiful and perfect Clorinda? Maybe there might be one or two people, but not more.
I have now read three of Burnett’s books and that’s it for me. Her fantasies are not my fantasies, her morals are not my morals. The beginning of this story is completely eyebrow-raising, but the end was very snoozy-making. Note to self, no odorless, tasteless poisons, no cousins that return from South America and no more perfect people not held accountable for their actions. This book left me with the exact same feeling that Fire of the Vanities left me with – a burning desire to go read a good book. As cross-dressing girls go, I enjoyed Ellen Kushner’s Privilege of the Sword more.
Overall – 5
Next up, I’ll be tackling the Count of Monte Cristo, so expect there to be a delay, while I make my way through its bulkiness. ^_^
Speaking of The Privilege of the Sword, it’s now available in audio starring, among other laudables, the author herself and Barbara Rosenblat who, if she recorded a reading of the phone book, I’d listen to it. (True story: I once called up Recorded Books on Tape and told them that I’d listen to her read the phone book and the woman on the phone just laughed and said, “We get that a lot.”)