10 April 2012

And Burnett Can Even Maintain Her Writing Skill Across Another Book

Hardcover, 363 pages
Published 1924 (originally 1896)
Acquired and read March 2012
A Lady of Quality: Being a most curious, hitherto unknown history, as related by Mr. Isaac Bickerstaff but not presented to the World of Fashion through the pages of The Tatler, and now for the first time written down by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Now, this isn't as good as Burnett's Through One Administration, but that's kind of a tall order. As Through One Administration was, though, it's a complete change of tack. Burnett's first three novels were Lancashire-set stories about the lower classes (kind of), while Through One Administration was about the political culture of Washington, D.C., during the Rutherford years. A Lady of Quality takes us back to England in the late 17th/early 18th century, chronicling a young woman named Clorinda. Clorinda is the third daughter of an English lord and the woman he used horribly, but unlike her older sisters, who are weak, she's strong, argumentative, and aggressive. She wins over her father and is raised as a boy-- until she hits sixteen or so and decides that she's going to be a woman. But she's not just any woman, she's the best dang woman who ever was. Having essentially been a "boy" for much of her life, Clorinda seems to have realized that gender is performance, and so she gives the best performances possible. She's a magnificent creation, one of those characters who is the best at everything, but it never bothers you that this is so because Burnett shows you why.

I'm going to get into spoiler territory, because what makes this novel truly interesting is a surprise. So don't read the rest of this if you intend to ever read A Lady of Quality (likely, I know). Just take me on trust that it's worth your time (mostly). So here it is: Clorinda flirts with one man, but marries another, who dies after only a couple years. When she's about to remarry, the first man comes back, threatening to reveal their "secret marriage" to the world. (I am pretty sure they just had sex, but whatever.) In a fit of rage, Clordina grabs a horsewhip from a table (she's just been riding) and beats him to death with it. Woah. There is no way in heck that I saw that coming; I was anticipating one of those Victorian "I've got to get the proof of our romance back from him" plots like in Wives and Daughters. What's more, she gets away with it. The last third of the book is about how wonderful her second marriage is. I certainly did not see that coming.

It's a great idea, and incredibly daring for an era in which so many people judged novels by their "moral" content, and the lengths to which Clorinda (and Burnett) goes to rationalize the murder as appropriate are interesting in and of themselves. Unfortunately, a third of a novel being about how happy someone is is dull reading. I don't object to Clorinda getting away with it-- and I love her cool, detached appraisal of what she has to do to cover it up when her rage has burnt itself out, not to mention the fact that she has visitors over while sitting on the couch the body is hidden under-- but it would have been more interesting for her to have to struggle to get away it a little bit more. I was fully expecting someone to turn up with an inkling of what transpired, and Clorinda to have to overcome him somehow, but that never happened. It just went on and on and on and on about how great everything was. So, there's a good, powerful idea at the center of A Lady of Quality, but I think it's hard to argue that Burnett doesn't explore its possibilities as well as she might.

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