Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first. Emily Eden is no Jane Austen, comparisons to her notwithstanding. Jane Austen could tell a story. Emily Eden cannot.
The eponymous couple of The Semi-Attached Couple are Helen, an 18-year-old, sheltered, gently reared, genteel young woman, and Teviot, who marries her at the start of the story.
Their marriage starts with an inauspicious misunderstanding. In fact, misunderstanding characterizes their relationship almost the whole way through. Teviot does not understand Helen and Helen does not understand Teviot. Teviot is jealous of Helen’s love for her family, and Helen is frightened by the intensity of Teviot’s feelings for her.
Their relationship was the most boring part of the entire novel. They and their relationship was probably a product of their times (the book was written in 1829 though not published until 1860) but really, could they not just have sat down, and had a heart-to-heart to clear up their misconceptions about each other?
If we leave the couple of the the title out of this discussion, then the rest of the stuff is not that bad. In Emily Eden’s own words, The Semi-Attached Couple is a “curious picture of old-fashioned society,” and Eden does seem to have an eye for the going-ons of a certain class of people, and the paraphernalia of their lives.
One of my favorite scenes in the story is the one where Helen, Teviot, and the rest of their friends are guests-of-honor at the opening of a local bridge. Eden infuses the scene with just the right amount of humor as she describes the grandeur of the party’s procession and the cheerful mob that the procession leaves in its wake. She then turns her eye towards the festooning of both the new bridge, and “the mayor and mayoress and their goodly company,” and goes on to regale her readers with a description of the hiccups that the party faces as “the barricade [in front of the bridge] stood firm” as everyone struggled to remove the staves and declare the bridge as officially opened.
The genial air, and the chatty spirit with which the whole scene is sketched makes one feel as if one is reading a letter from an old friend. And this is what makes me want to try out Emily Eden’s collection of letters (rather than her second novel).
There are two characters in the story that I want to talk about.
Lady Portmore’s relentless posturing and maneuvering while wearing is also macabrely funny. Her utter inability to believe that she could be wrong in any sense of the word, and her astonishing dexterity at ushering in any and every situation with a triumphant prescience, no matter which end of the stick she might have been at, so to speak, in the beginning, is a marvel to behold.
Her amazing lack of self-awareness and at-times annoying, and at-times hilarious ability to believe that she’s always had the right of it reminded me of another champion of self-delusion.
Who else but the one and only Michael Scott?
And of course, in my hunt for the perfect Michael Scott gif, I came across another quote which I heartily wish to fling at Lady Portmore:
Oh god. You’re awful. And you don’t even know how awful you are.
~ The Good Wife
Mrs. Douglas on the other hand is a nice mix of disdain and scorn, whose persecutions very naturally do not extend to her own family members—a sign of humanness that makes her slightly (but just) less annoying than Mrs. Portmore. For the general public however, her persnicketiness is steady, and never-ending, ready to be doled out at a moment’s notice. So great is her prowess that even when “in imminent peril of being forced to praise, [she] escaped with great adroitness.”
Let me end with this marvelous gossipy bit:
Never was the congregation so alert in standing up at the proper opportunities. Old Mr. Marlow, a martyr to the rheumatic gout, and Mrs. Greenland, who had, for two years, made her stiff knee an excuse for sitting down during the whole of the service, were both on their legs before the psalm was given out. The clerk, who had a passion for his own singing, saw his advantages, and gave out five verses of a hymn, with repetition of the last two lines of each verse. Seven verses and a half! But nobody thought it a note too long. . . .
It was a most satisfactory Sunday; and as most of them were addicted to the immoral practice of Sunday letter-writing, the observations of the morning were reduced to writing in the evening, and sent off to various parts of England on Monday morning.