Thursday, July 5, 2007

"A young, idle, indiscreet, giddy girl"

I finished reading A Simple Story, by Elizabeth Inchbald, a successful actress and playwright who had a smash best-seller with this almost forgotten novel in 1791. According to the critical essay in the front of the book, she managed to walk the fine line of depicting "indecent" behavior without being thought improper herself.

The "simple" part of the story is that of Miss Milner, lively and fun-loving young woman (who even daringly wears boots to a party). She's sent to live with a new guardian, a young priest, who her dying father thought could teach her to take life more seriously. Although the two mostly like and respect one another, various incidents cause a power struggle to escalate between them, with a continual desire for independence on her side and an urge to control on his.

When various young lords start coming around and courting her, the plot thickens. Already thought too much of a flirt, she starts feigning love in order to throw off anyone's suspicions of her true feelings, and then has to capriciously reject the guy she said she wanted so nobody will try to marry them off. Secretly, she has fallen in love with her Morrissey put it, she wants the one she can't have, and it's driving her mad. If her feelings were known, she knows she'd be sent away to live with strangers and never see him again.

Although part of her indiscreetness has been her freedom with language ("as a woman, she was privileged to say anything she pleased," p. 39) and her sometimes effusive emotional responses in general, there are many scenes where she puts on a happy face and completely fakes her personality. The inability to communicate becomes the real villain of the piece: because of social propriety, personal stoicism, fear of the repercussions, character after character cannot or dare not say what they really think. Even the crusty old priest Sanford, who seems to have no social manners at all, aims his harshest negative judgments at people he likes, in the hopes of reforming them, so that the people who think he hates them are the ones he likes best.

Fate, and the death of a relative, leaves Miss Milner's guardian to inherit a manor, and he is freed from his priestly vows to take up civic leadership and become Lord Elmwood. Suddenly, the possibility exists that the two could actually hook up. But the apparent trajectory of romance goes awry, as Inchbald depicts a couple who both love each other, but are basically incompatible. They try, but they continually misunderstand each other.

Despite all the obstacles, they get engaged, but Miss Milner completely, and seemingly on purpose, screws everything up by going to a masquerade ball he's forbidden her to attend: just to prove she can. Very realistically, she's bored and has a terrible time, but in the confrontation afterwards, when her fiance alludes to breaking off their engagement, she calmly says "I expected as much, my lord." Although she's obviously acting like an idiot, she's also right that he is, at least to someone like her, too tyrannical, and their fights are a symptom of real and serious conflicts.

When Sanford (who seemed most to object to their marriage, having tried to "save you from the worst of misfortunes, conjugal strife," p. 191), sees how miserable they both are and gets them back together, it seems like the normal end of a romance. They've had the misunderstandings, the ups and downs, and there they are, married at the end of the volume. But of course, the misunderstandings and the differences in their temperaments are going to follow them into the marriage. When the novel jumps into the future, we see that they were happy for a while, but when things got difficult, the cracks widened again. The neglected wife had an affair, and the wronged husband disowned her and their daughter, becoming a real tyrant to everyone around him.

Like Wuthering Heights, the second part of the book follows the daughter of the original heroine, and gives her the happy ending that was denied to her mother. But certainly in this case, Miss Milner was a much more interesting character, and more the center of attention, than poor Matilda, who has only to prove her dutifulness over and over again until it's finally rewarded. Most critics seem to think this was a largely a dodge, a moral doling of punishment and reward which allowed Inchbald to write sympathetically about an adultress and not outrage anybody. Which would explain a lot about the latter part of the book and why it seems so anti-climactic, despite a very slight late-blooming Gothic feel.

Nonetheless, definitely a fine addition to your Amatory Fiction Bookshelf. You've got one, don't you? It's the hot new trend, so what are you waiting for?

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