Sunday, December 7, 2008

Madame de Fleury

Maria Edgeworth's Madame de Fleury (1805) is a pretty standard anti-Jacobin text. Madame de Fleury is an exemplary woman. She is clever, benevolent, wise, patient, and good. The action is centred around a school for impoverished girls that she is inspired to open when she meets three poor children who are forced to spend their days locked in a room while their mother looks for work. Given Edgeworth's interest in education, there is a lot of detail about how exemplary the school is in every way - the girls are educated by example, and the emphasis is on practical education, rather than the acquisition of accomplishments. There is a strong class bias inherent in the school, which I found distasteful from a modern perspective, but was obviously intended as a good thing: despite the fact that the girls show signs of high achievement in areas such as writing and dancing, they are not encouraged to develop these talents due to their lower-class status. Such accomplishments might encourage them to climb the social ladder, you see. They must be perfectly content to suppress their talents and work as shop assistants, ladies maids, and governesses.

Anyway, along comes the French Revolution to put a damper on this whole more-perfect-than-perfect school. Madame de Fleury is forced into exile, and the school is forcibly disbanded. Victorie, the most perfect of these perfect students, is the center of the student's attempts to salvage Madame de Fleury and her property. At one point, Victorie confronts the revolutionaries head on, and her perfection is enough to make them reconsider destroying Madame de Fleury's chateau. Oh, to be so perfect!

If you think I'm sounding a little cynical, it's because I am. I think Maria Edgeworth's tendency to didactism works for her sometimes, and sometimes it does not. This is one of the cases where it does not. I didn't feel like any of the characters were real, and the story lacks the wit and insight of her other novels. For all Maria Edgeworth's morality, I think she is much better at writing "bad" characters than good - her good characters are too good to be believable, while her "bad" characters all seem like real people to me (see Lady Delacour in Belinda, for example). All of Maria Edgeworth's novels are moralistic and educative, but this one is moralistic and educative and nothing else.

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