Sylvia: the story of an American countessSeptember 6, 2011
Sylvia is nineteen, the daughter of a woman from California and an Italian Count (both dead), and the most beautiful woman in Europe. But while her aunt wants her to marry a Duke — unless maybe a prince is available — Sylvia says that, if she ever marries at all, she’ll choose an American man. Philip Monroe would be happy to be that man. Eric Fielding has to deny to himself that he’d be happy to be that man, since he’s engaged to a girl in New York. Dick Ames knows there’s no likelihood of his being that man, so he becomes her good friend instead.
Really, though, Sylvia’s not interested in marrying anybody. But her aunt is really pushing the Duke, so Sylvia runs away to her other aunt in California and changes her name to Barbara Gordon. She — obviously — will henceforth be known as Batgirl, to avoid confusion.
Meanwhile, we learn more about Eric and his fiancée: Her name is Edith, she’s very beautiful and very much in love with Eric, and he doesn’t care about her at all. He asked her to marry him because he overheard her confess to another girl that she was in love with him. She knows he doesn’t love her, but she’s holding out hope that she can win him over. Any chance of that happening is gone, though, when he travels to California on an errand for his sister and meets Batgirl in her Barbara Gordon guise. They fall in love, but he can’t say anything because he’s engaged to Edith, and she won’t say anything because she thinks he’s in love with someone who died, and eventually he goes back to New York.
This would all be perfectly satisfactory, if only it weren’t terrible. I still have no idea why Eric and Batgirl fell in love, and the writing is ridiculously clumsy: “He had to stand very near in order to help her dismount, and as she jumped a lock of her hair brushed against him and caught in a college society pin fastened to his waistcoat, that it was de riguer for him to wear at all times and on all occasions.”
On the way home, Eric decides that he needs to do something to be worthy of Batgirl, so he decides to make literature his profession — in the most obnoxious way possible. He’s like, “Well, I like books a lot, so if I have a talent, it must be for writing.” And because the author of this book is so extremely misguided, we know his assumption that he does have a talent isn’t going to be proved wrong. Although, if this is Evalyn Emerson’s attitude towards writing, I suppose we now have a very good explanation for the existence of this book.
Anyway, it gets worse. Eric, having decided that liking to read qualifies him to be a professional writer, says to himself, “Hey, you know what else I like? Ancient Egypt! I think I will write a novel about an Egyptian princess. It will be fictional, but she will have a ‘true oriental character.’” His heroine is to be the daughter of a Pharaoh, of course, but he decides to make her mother a white slave so that the girl can be blonde. Eric feels that blonde hair is necessary to beauty because Batgirl is blonde. Also, this is how you’re going to prove yourself worthy? By writing a trashy (if Eric writes it, you know it’s going to be trashy) historical novel?
He returns to New York and sets to work. Eventually Edith returns from her trip abroad and they have a series of pretty frank discussions about their situation — she loves him, he has no interest in her and is in love with someone else — during which Eric takes the incomprehensible position that, being the man, he’s honor bound not to break the engagement, and that it would be far better for him to marry her, to continue to be cold and occasionally cruel to her, and never to let her touch him.
I know Eric is playing by the rules and Edith isn’t. He had to ask her to marry him, and a well-regulated heroine, knowing that, would have refused him. But honestly, I sympathize so much more with her than I do with him, and I did even before the whole Egyptian princess novel made me hate him and everything he chooses to do. His actions are always dictated by circumstance, or by other people; he never comes up with his own reasons for doing things. Edith is selfish, but at least she wants things, and goes after them. Actually, Eric is selfish, too — more selfish, even — in that he insists on being the honorable one. He’d rather make everyone miserable than take action. He may be honorable on the surface, but underneath? Well, Tom Slade wouldn’t act like this.
Eventually it becomes clear to her exactly how much of an asshole he is, and she breaks off the engagement a couple of nights before the wedding and tells him she hates him. He, being a condescending ass, tells her that he never really believed she loved him, and he doesn’t believe she hates him now either. Seriously? a) Is there a reason Edith isn’t allowed to vouch for her own thoughts and feelings? and b) Judging by Eric’s power to inspire hate across more than a century and the fiction/real life divide, I wouldn’t be so sure of that if I were him.
Being free, Eric loses little time in catching a train to California, pausing only to drop off his novel-in-progress, “which had suddenly lost much of its value to him.” Yeah. And then when he arrives, Batgirl’s uncle — looking very much altered — tells him that the aunt and Batgirl have both died. And, whether because Evalyn Emerson is allergic to tension or because she’s practical enough to know she can’t manufacture any, we immediately cut to Batgirl rejoining her aunt in Nice and explaining that her uncle has gone a bit crazy since her aunt’s death. Meanwhile Eric has exiled himself to Egypt.
Eventually Eric’s book makes its way to Batgirl, via Dick Ames, nicest of supporting characters. She loves it, of course, and not just to cuddle with, although she does do that. In particular, she likes that the heroine has the same hair color as her. I know she’s mainly thinking of the heroine in relation to herself because she’s in love with the guy that wrote it, but is “That was great; I like that the heroine has hair like mine,” ever really an appropriate response to a book? We are told that the book is wildly successful, but that is where my suspension of disbelief stops dead. Eric could not write a good book if he lived to be a hundred years old; he’s never had an original thought.
After two years in Egypt, and an unspecified number of additional successful, Egyptian-themed novels, Eric arrives in Nice to hang out with his sister, who lives there now. He arrives on the day of the amateur theatrical adaptation of his first book, and obviously Batgirl plays the blonde oriental heroine. Eric is overjoyed to see her, but when he greets her backstage, everyone thinks he’s confused and believes she’s actually the Egyptian princess, which is crazy. And he is confused, because he hears everyone refer to her as “Countess,” but for whatever reason he doesn’t explain that he’s not insane and has just mistaken her for someone else. And I don’t know what Batgirl is supposed to think, or why she never mentions their time hanging out in California together, but the two sort of vaguely become friends, Batgirl pining for more than friendship and Eric trying to prove to himself that, although Barbara Gordon and Countess Sylvia are identical, Barbara’s soul was prettier.
Eventually, after a year and numerous opportunities for Batgirl to clear everything up by mentioning California, Eric realizes he’s in love with Batgirl-as-Sylvia, and immediately hates himself for being unfaithful to Batgirl-as-dead-Barbara-Gordon. He decided that the honorable thing to do, as he is “pledged” to Batgirl-as-dead-Barbara-Gordon (this may or may not be a pledge he made after he heard that she was dead), is to go back to Egypt.
Then Edith shows up in Europe, deduces from what she hears about Eric and Batgirl that he’s in love with her and she’s refused him — which, to be fair, isn’t all that farfetched when you consider the information available to her; it’s the truth that’s weird. She meets Batgirl and decides to get revenge on her for attracting Eric at all — she’ll figure out who Batgirl actually likes, and she’ll break them up. Then she sees Batgirl kissing Eric’s photograph and starts soliloquizing about revenge, and I become hopelessly confused. She believes that the fact that Batgirl is in love with Eric means that Eric isn’t in love with Batgirl, so why she should still wish to get revenge on Batgirl is beyond me. Anyway, she fake-confesses to Batgirl that she herself is the object of Eric’s affections, and Batgirl goes off and gets herself engaged to Philip Monroe in a fit of despair.
Eric comes back from Egypt unexpectedly and Edith is seized by fear/remorse and the conviction that Eric does love Batgirl, although, judging by the general accuracy of her deductions, this may just be an idea she’s come up with at random. So Edith, with what motive I cannot tell, goes to Batgirl and tells her the truth, but it’s too late. Batgirl has just secretly married Philip. Still, she grants Eric’s request to see her once more, and finally everything is cleared up and she knows he loves her, and he knows she’s Barbara and Sylvia both. Because of her marriage, they decide to part forever, and Eric rushes out into a storm that’s just beginning. Philip, meanwhile, is rushing in the opposite direction, and ends up creepily staking out Batgirl’s window.
1st Lightning Bolt: illuminates Sylvia’s face
2nd Lightning Bolt: strikes Philip dead
I know it’s hard to believe, after this torrent of words, but that ending left me speechless.
Should you, for some reason, want to read Sylvia: the story of an American countess, by Evalyn Emerson, it can be found here.