The Semi-Attached CoupleAugust 24, 2010
A couple of months ago, I was unexpectedly sent a boxful of Virago Modern Classics. One of them contained Emily Eden’s two novels, The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House. People kept telling me as I was reading that they really liked the title of my book, and I kept having to explain that it was actually two books. The titles are still pretty good, I think.
There’s a quote on the back of this book — no, wait: there are three quotes on the back, and all three compare Eden to Jane Austen. One of them, the one I’ve seen several times before, says that Emily Eden is the person whose books you read when you’ve finished all of Austen. I hesitate to say I’ve read all of Jane Austen — I don’t feel like I need to read all of her juvenilia, and having read one of the unfinished novels, I’m not terribly interested in reading the other. I’m not sure if the number of times I’ve read Lady Susan counts for anything. Anyway, I’m a fan.
You can see the Jane Austen comparisons from the start of The Semi-Attached Couple, which was written in 1829, but not published until after the success of The Semi-Detached House, which was released in 1859. It’s set in the same sort of world as Pride and Prejudice, and one of the families seems intended to draw comparisons to the Bennetts, although for the most part Eden concentrates on the characters who move in similar circles to the Darcys and Bingleys. So, there are characters similar to Jane Austen’s. There are plot elements similar to Jane Austen’s. Emily Eden’s brand of gentle satire is similar to Jane Austen’s. As I read The Semi-Attached Couple, I began to feel really irritated that I had been introduced to Eden in terms of Austen.
Here’s a couple of other comparisons: Some of Eden’s characters remind me a bit of Dickens’, in that they are defined by a specific mannerism and yet somehow still manage to seem like people. And then, on my personal scale of flattering comparisons, George Eliot is pretty much at the top, and there were passages where Helen and Teviot, Eden’s two main characters, recalled Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch — not because the characters themselves are very similar, but because of the way Eden explains their relationship and shows not only that they don’t understand each other, but why and how they don’t understand each other.
Really, though, it’s unfair to only talk about Eden in relation to other authors. I didn’t like the plot of The Semi-Attached Couple, which was plodding in the first half and contrived in the second, and I found all three of the romances decidedly unromantic, but I think I liked pretty much everything else.
Teviot is an extremely wealthy young aristocrat. He and Helen get married at the beginning of the book, before they know each other very well. They’re actually not terribly interesting, but almost all of the secondary characters are extremely engaging. My favorite was Mrs. Douglas, a neighbor of Helen’s family, who starts out as a caricature, an irritating woman who goes out of her way to say disagreeable things about everyone she meets. She doesn’t stop being irritating or disagreeable, but she does stop being a caricature, and, in fact, turns out to be one of the kindest and most clear-sighted characters in the book.
Then there’s Lady Portmore, who needs everyone to see her as the most important person in any given situation. I found her frustrating, and I’m still not sure whether that was mainly because of how that one trait was her only piece of characterization, or if it was just that she reminded me uncomfortably of people I know. I think there were elements of both, and I won’t be forgetting Lady Portmore in the foreseeable future. There were also two secondary couples, both of whom were charming. although I would have liked to have seen them written by someone with more of a feel for romance than Emily Eden. I suppose the marriage plot was a necessity at the time, but Eden never seems totally comfortable with it.
The Semi-Attached Couple is flawed, but it’s a good book, and deserves better than to be referred to exclusively in terms of Jane Austen. I liked it, but I doubt I’ll be rereading it.
The Semi-Detached House is another story entirely.