Monday, December 8, 2008

Emilie de Coulanges

Emilie de Coulanges (1803), by Maria Edgeworth, is another anti-Jacobin novel. This time, it's about two emigrants, a mother and daughter, who have come to live with an upper-class English woman. Mrs Somers, the English woman in question, is initially very generous to them, but over time, of course, she comes to resent them for various reasons. She thus engages in this very convoluted form of psychological warfare with Emilie (the daughter).

I found this a much more engaging novel than Madame de Fleury. As I said in regards to that novel, Maria Edgeworth is better at creating "bad" characters than good ones, as her "bad" characters are more believable. Mrs Somers is not evil, but obviously has a problem controlling her temper. Her idea of being a good friend involves making over-the-top sacrifices of her money and time. Of course, nobody can ever be as grateful as she wants them to be, so problems arise. I found her scenes with Emilie wonderful, as Emilie has no idea what she's doing wrong, and so keeps on accidentally enraging Mrs Somers. There's a great scene involving the purchase of some paintings (or, really, the inability to purchase the paintings), in which Mrs Somers grows steadily more resentful, and Emilie has no idea, so it's all kinds of complex and delicious.

This is not a perfect novel - the romance plot is a bit tacked on, and there is a miraculous restoration of the de Coulanges fortune a la Madame de Fleury. The anti-Jacobinism of the text is played down, so that all you really hear about the Revolution is that the de Coulanges family have lost their money and that the father of the family has been guillotined (but this is not dwelt upon at any length). The Revolution is a very remote calamity, so you're never really engaged with the question of whether or not the de Coulanges will regain their property. For a family that's just had to cope with the execution of their husband and father, they don't seem to think about it much.

However, for the psychological complexity of the interaction between Emilie and Mrs Somers along, this is well worth a read.

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