09 June 2014

Review: Zoe: A History of Two Lives Geraldine Jewsbury

Trade paperback, 431 pages
Published 1989 (contents: 1845)
Acquired October 2012
Read May 2014
Zoe: A History of Two Lives
by Geraldine Jewsbury

This book has a killer premise: a father in the eighteenth century gives his daughter a classical education, like a man would receive, and as a result she ends up unable to fit into either the world of man or woman. You wouldn't know it, though, because it barely does anything with that premise; we're mostly just told that it's true, but we never really see Zoe move through society or try to find her place in the world, except when she decides to get married, and though she has her occasional regrets after that, they're not developed substantively or interestingly.

One can't help but feeling that if Elizabeth Gaskell or George Eliot had turned their hands to this premise, you would have got a book with keener insight. The narrator comes out with these sweeping generalizations about women, and it's like, where did you even get this from? Aren't you a woman? Be smart for a second! "A true woman always blames herself, and it is a point on which her lover, to do him justice, never contradicts her" (387)? Really? But I guess it's mean to blame Jewsbury for the fact that no one had come along and invented Realism yet. (Mary Barton was three years away, and that's where I would peg it.)

Also there is a story about a doubting priest named Everhard (the second of the subtitle's "two lives"). Like Zoe's story, this one starts interesting but soon meanders into nothingness, and then we end up pondering whether Zoe's stepdaughter Clotilde will marry the right man, which isn't really what any of us came here for. The Everhard subplot does yield, however, the book's funniest moment, an apology from the narrator:
It is very troublesome to have to deal with a hero of seventeen! A girl of seventeen, fortune favouring, may be made into a very interesting heroine; people will believe all that can be said of her beauty, wit, and wisdom, and will patiently read through three or even six volumes full of her adventures, and find themselves much edified with the perusal. But a lad of seventeen! merciful heaven! to make a hero of him would require a suspension of the laws of nature! All his graces of childhood have run to seed, and the victims of manhood have not yet replaced them; he is no longer the chubby darling [...] but an unfinished, uneasy biped, a plague to every body within his reach, and with whose doings and sufferings, nobody, not absolutely obliged, wishes to have the least concern. (40)
I think that if the whole novel had been that fun, well, it would have maintained my interest much more.

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