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Meg’s Friend

January 11, 2018

Why were Victorians so good at weird kids and so bad at romance? Okay, that’s a very broad generalization, and probably unfair, but it applies to Meg’s Friend, by Alice Abigail Corkran.

Meg is a young girl raised in a boarding house in London. The proprietress, Mrs. Brown, is the only guardian she’s ever known, but somewhere in the background someone is sending money for her keep. She’s a reserved, serious child whose upbringing has given her a lot of worldly wisdom, and she has exactly one friend. This is William Standish, a young journalist who boards at Mrs. Browne’s. He’s clearly more genteel and better educated than the other people Meg knows, and he teaches her and reads to her and improves her speech and manners by example. In return, she keeps his room tidy, holds onto his money so he doesn’t run out before payday, and scolds him when he drinks. It’s his inquiries that draw Meg’s guardian’s attention to the conditions at Mrs. Browne’s and get Meg sent away to school.

School is tough for Meg.  It’s not so much that the only things she knows about her past are the things she’s been forbidden to tell — although the other girls do tease her. It’s that the tools she’s developed to cope with her environment (single-mindedness, independence, a transactional view of relationships) don’t work here. She’s awkward and proud, and eventually earns the respect of her schoolmates, but has a harder time with affection.

The final section of the book takes place when Meg is eighteen, and finally gets to know her guardian. She also re-encounters Standish, and — well, of course they fall in love. They were always going to do that. In the early parts of the book Corkran painted a vivid portrait of an emotional but repressed child, but, like many authors before and after her, she has a hard time keeping her character’s personality intact while transitioning her to adulthood. Meg at eighteen is fine, but it’s hard to identify her with Meg at eleven, and she’s certainly less interesting.

Then there’s the romance. I’m always leery of relationships between characters that met when one was a child, but Corkran does a good job telegraphing that it’s going to happen while keeping their early friendship age-appropriate. And when they meet as adults, Meg and Standish are clearly attracted to each other before they realize they’ve met before. But even knowing the romance was going to happen, and feeling pretty positive about it, I wanted Corkran to work a little harder at convincing me. I’ve never really been on board with the Hemingwayish, all action words all the time “show don’t tell,” but I do buy into the idea that an author shouldn’t tell us anything they’re not prepared to back up. Corkran describes exactly what I want to see between Meg and Standish: friendship, teasing, comfortable conversations about anything and everything, and a growing importance in each others’ lives. But she doesn’t really show it, and that’s frustrating to read. More of Corkran’s real attention goes to Meg’s relationship with her guardian, and, accordingly, I got more invested in that. Not that their storyline couldn’t use a little more fleshing out, too.

Anyway, I shouldn’t dwell on the disappointing elements so much, because this was a book I got excited about a few pages into, and was excited about when I finished it. Project Gutenberg has not yet run out of fun things I’ve never heard of.

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7 comments

  1. I love that:
    1. There are more books! and
    2. I now have your blog to point me to good books instead of just taking my chances via semi-randomly selected titles (which, to be fair, does *sometimes* work out, but there was a doozy of a downer last week; when 1/3 of the way through the book, at the first kiss, the narrator notes that it would have been better for both the protagonist and the woman he loves to fall off the tower to their deaths, well, you know things aren’t going to be very cheerful; I held some hope that the protagonist was going to get better up to that point, but quit there (although I did read the ending, out of curiosity, and it *almost* ended on a hopeful note after killing off most of the characters and wrecking the lives of all but two!).)

    So, thank you for refilling my to-read list!

    Also, “he teaches her and reads to her and improves her speech and manners by example. In return, she keeps his room tidy, holds onto his money so he doesn’t run out before payday, and scolds him when he drinks.”… I was thinking “hm. Shades of Pollyooly?” – but, no perfectly-made bacon mentioned in the description, so clearly not at all related. ;-)


    • I’m always afraid that there are not going to be more books, but something usually comes along and reminds me that there are.

      That book sounds miserable, but also reminds me of a hilarious story written by one of the girls at Meg’s school, in which two extremely beautiful people fall in love at first sight and then immediately drown together.

      I suppose there’s a bit of Pollyooly there, but Jepson lives so much more in his sense of humor than Corkran, and Pollyooly is so much more hard-headed and free of sentiment than Meg that it never occurred to me.

      I’m having such good luck with semi-randomly selected titles right now, and I’m glad to be able to share it.


      • The sheer levels of Romance and Tragedy reported by books about stories written by that age group (see also Alcott and Montgomery) is amazing, but I think seeing each other, falling in love, and then immediately drowning perhaps takes the cake for efficiency!

        I definitely appreciate you sharing your luck!


        • Check out this play written by Laura E. Richards’ older sister — talk about efficiency.


          • HA! Yes, that one. I think it’s doing something slightly more complicated than the “fall in love at first sight, immediately drown” – but still, very efficient. :-)


  2. I couldn’t agree more about the Hemingway style of writing


    • It’s so exhausting, and so bound up with boring anxieties about masculinity.



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