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The Dull Miss Archinard

July 10, 2011

So, there’s this really wonderful book that I found at the New York Public Library a few weeks ago. I mean, I don’t even know how to describe how special it is.

The Dull Miss Archinard is not that book. But I probably never would have come accross it on my own.

The book is called Toward a feminist tradition: an annotated bibliography of novels in English by women, 1891-1920, by Diva Daims and Janet Grimes, and it is a list of books by women that have a bit of a feminist bent (or an older-than-average heroine, or a heroine with a career), with blurbs compiled from contemporary reviews. It is the reading list of my dreams. I mean, aside from all the descriptions of books about how having children out of wedlock will inevitably lead to everyone involved dying the most miserable deaths possible, whether for moral reasons or because of the state of society, depending on the political inclinations of the author. But the books that delight in wretchedness seem to be counteracted by books about women founding salons, or farming coconuts. It’s pretty great.

Anyway, I noted down many titles, and The Dull Miss Archinard, by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, was the first one I sought out. It’s about a guy named Peter Odd, whose estate neighbors on that of the Archinards: a spendthrift father, an invalid mother, and two young girls. Katherine, fourteen-ish, is courageous, scientifically inclined, and very smart. Hilda, maybe twelve, is timid, emotional, and intense. Odd makes friends with Hilda, who quotes Chaucer at him, and is flatteringly fond of his company, but when Odd’s wife dies, he leaves England and doesn’t encounter any of the Archinards for another ten years.

Then he encounters Katherine in Paris. He’s impressed by her wit, her manner, and her velvet gown, but mostly he’s eager to see Hilda again. Hilda, though, is kind of hard to track down. Odd spends increasing amounts of time with Katherine and her parents, but Hilda, if she appears at all, only pops in to say hi between coming home from the studio where she paints and going to bed. Eventually Odd finds out what’s going on: Hilda is working herself to the bone in order to support her family in the lifestyle to which they insist on remaining accustomed. And also he realizes that he’s in love with her, which is awkward, because by that point he’s gone and gotten himself engaged to Katherine.

All of this should be significantly more fun than it actually is. I mean, it’s okay. I sort of liked most of the characters. Getting to be indignant about the way the Archinards treat Hilda was pretty enjoyable. The section towards the end where Hilda, Katherine, and Peter Odd all repeatedly accuse each other of being base was as unintentionally hilarious as it was irritating. But it could have been much better. Especially if Sedgwick’s editor had forbidden the use of the word ‘base.’

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