Monday, September 29, 2008
I've just finished reading Leonora, by Maria Edgeworth, which was first published in 1806.
Leonora is a novel about a very, very naughty woman. So, of course, the afore-mentioned naughty woman is French. Because everybody knows that being French means you like pretty clothing and have no morals! Well, at least, that's what was thought by the somewhat more conservative side of early nineteenth-century society, and, obviously, Maria Edgeworth. The novel is about what happens when a French woman with a somewhat 'loose' reputation goes to stay with a young English couple. An obvious recipe for disaster, one might think, and the book doesn't surprise on that front. I don't consider that a spoiler, by the way, because it's just so blatantly obvious from the very first page that there's going to be some sex, and I don't mean of the "between husband and wife" kind.
Leonora takes place during the Peace of Amiens - a brief period of peace between France and England from March 1802 to May 1803. This is only really relevant to the action because there is free movement in the novel between Paris and London, something which could not occur immediately prior to and post the Peace of Amiens. Maria Edgeworth herself visited Paris during this time, and the novel is dotted with allusions to real people and novels that were circulating at the time. In other words, a version with notes is very helpful.
Despite the obvious demonisation of the French in this novel (the French women are melodramatic, interested only in clothes and parties, and enjoy manipulating the men), this is an interesting novel on a number of fronts. There's lots of discussion of post-Revolutionary Paris, and a nice slice-of-life insight into how both England and France at the turn-of-the-century. Lady Olivia, the villainous French woman, is very similar to Austen's equally bitchy and fabulous Lady Susan from her novella of the same name. Lady Olivia is the kind of heroine you just love to hate. She's manipulative and crazy and awful, but at least she's entertaining. Unlike Leonora, who is just as boringly virtuous as any ideal early nineteenth-century English woman. For a novel called Leonora, however, most of the letters (I forgot to mention that this is an epistolary novel!) aren't by or to Leonora, so thankfully the boring virtuousness is kept to a minimum! And Leonora's friend, Helen, is awesome, as she manages to be both good and snarky, and is therefore 100 times more entertaining than the title character.
For a very brief Austen-esque look at early nineteenth-century England and France, this is a pretty good (and brief) bet.