I had never heard of her before, so when my friend explained to me that she was a contemporary of Jane Austen and had written a wonderful novel, I was immediately intrigued. Noel Perrin of The Washington Post, on the back cover, amusingly observes, “The Semi-Attached Couple is the answer to a good many prayers. It is the book you go on to when you have run out of Jane Austen’s novels.”
We all know Jane Austen and her enduring influence on our ideas of romance and strong women. The Wall Street Journal just posted a great article by Alexander McCall Smith exploring the mystery of her appeal even to contemporary people: “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry”. Smith wonders,
What explains the continued popularity of Jane Austen and the handful of novels she wrote? It is, after all, rather remarkable that a woman who spent her life in quiet provincial circumstances in early 19th-century England should become, posthumously, a literary celebrity outshining every author since then, bar none. Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels. (Smith, “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry.” Wall Street Journal).
After reading Emily Eden’s delightful novel, The Semi-Detached Couple, I guess my question is this:
Why has everyone heard of Jane Austen and nobody has heard of Emily Eden?
Emily Eden (1797-1869) occupied a rather distinguished position in the upper class of her day. She, like Austen, never married– but unlike Austen did quite a bit of traveling, even to India with her beloved brother, where she wrote about her experiences.
The Semi-Detatched Couple was originally written around 1830 but not published until 1860. Interestingly Eden felt the need to include a caveat right after the cover page, explaining to her audience that this novel had been written a generation ago, “before railroads were established, and traveling carriages-and-four superseded” and thus really was “a strange Chronicle of the Olden Time” (Eden, Preface to The Semi-Detatched Couple).
Unlike Austen, who always writes about the pre-marriage adventures of courtship, pursuit, and misunderstanding–Eden in this novel writes about post-married life. The novel explores the challenges of a newly married couple who have a very hard time understanding one another. Lord Teviot is desperately in love with this wife but extremely jealous of her strong attachment to her family. Lady Helen is confused by her husband’s moodiness and misses her loving home.
However, like Austen, Eden creates extremely memorable, humorous, and occasionally infuriating characters–like the next door neighbor Mrs. Douglas who
had never had the slightest pretensions to good looks; in fact, though it is wrong to say anything so ill-natured, she was excessively plain, always had been so, and had a soreness on the subject of beauty, that looked perhaps as like envy as any other quality. As she had no hope of raising herself to the rank of a beauty, her only chance was bringing others down to her own level. “How old she is looking!” — “How she is altered!” were the expressions that invariably concluded Mrs. Douglas’ comments on her acquaintances […] (Ibid 21)
Eden, like Austen, is a very opinionated narrator whose frequent use of irony and wit had me laughing out loud many times throughout the novel.
Very aware of Austen’s influence, Eden even includes an explicit reference to her work. In a letter to her mother while visiting the enviable Ecksdales, Eliza Douglas says,
I write in such haste, that I have not time for more than several very important questions which I want you to answer. What am I to give the housemaids here? and do you object to my reading novels, if Lady Eskdale says there is no harm in them? They look very tempting, particularly one called Pride and Prejudice. (Ibid)
Like Austen, Eden makes frequent use of letter writing in advancing the plot and exploring the motives of her characters. But fascinatingly, unlike Austen, she explores the servants‘ perspectives of their lords and ladies. In a letter from Mrs. Tomkinson, Helen’s ladies maid, we hear about the petty competitions between servants, their opinions on the upper-class interactions they witness daily, and their own concerns. Eden treats them with the same amused attitude she has toward all of her characters.
Notably, Jane Austen never enters into the mind or heart of any servant in her novels. They are barely mentioned in her works at all. I wonder if perhaps, because Lady Eden belonged the the upper class and was safely removed from the servants’ circle, she did not feel threatened in any way by their perspectives and could enter into them in her novels without losing ironic detachment. Austen, being somewhat closer in class, perhaps could not share in this narrative perspective.
Austen also does not comment very much on the politics of her day (although I do not hold this against her). Eden does, and reveals all the ridiculous machinations of the political process of the period. In some ways she was far more worldly than Austen and this is very apparent in her work.
Although I do not think Lady Eden’s novel reaches the depth of Austen’s finest works, (like Emma or Persuasion), I think it certainly surpasses Northanger Abbey and, in some ways, even Pride and Prejudice. She is gentler toward her characters than Austen is. And the “villains” in her story are not soundly punished like Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Wickham are, which perhaps better illustrates an irritating truth about human life.
I highly recommend The Semi-Detached Couple and wish more people knew Lady Eden.