Sunday, November 2, 2008


I'm not entirely sure what I think of Vivian, by Maria Edgeworth (1812). I felt it started off as one kind of novel, then became another kind of novel.

Vivian is basically a novel of ideas. The central idea in the novel is education. There are a number of portraits of the different kinds of education a man or a woman in the eighteenth-century might receive. What the novel is concerned about is the limitations of these forms of education, and the errors that people fall into as a result of imperfect education.

Vivian's main flaw is that he is easily led. In fact, he is so impressionable that his opinion usually coincides with that of whoever he has last conversed with. This seems to set the novel up as a bildungsroman, but Vivian never seems to learn anything at all, despite falling into numerous mishaps as a result of his inability to decide anything for himself. This can become extremely tiring. However, somehow Edgeworth avoids making her hero too irritating. I found myself liking Vivian despite myself. And Edgeworth's careful examination of the effect of education was interesting, especially given her expertise in the area (she published educational textbooks with her father).

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, there is a surprising amount of humour in the book, especially surrounding the character of the self-absorbed author and actress, Miss Bateman (or the Rosamunda, as she is known). When the novel was published, it was rumoured to be a portrait of another Irish novelist, Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan), but Edgeworth always denied this.

This novel finishes on a much more bleak note than I initially expected. Which is why I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I felt like there was something missing in the novel, and it does end rather abruptly. However, I did feel sorry for pretty much all the characters, and I found one scene in the novel almost up there with similar scenes in the novels of Jane Austen (hint: it involves a woman refusing a proposal of marriage).

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