A Lady of Quality by Frances Hodgson Burnett ~ 1896. This edition: Center Point Publishing, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-58547-000-7. 317 pages.
My rating: 4.5/10
She gathered all her dying will and brought her hand up to the infant’s mouth. A wild look was on her poor, small face, she panted and fell forward on its breast, the rattle in her throat growing louder. The child awakened, opening great black eyes, and with her dying weakness its new-born life struggled. Her cold hand lay upon its mouth, and her head upon its body, for she was too far gone to move if she had willed to do so. But the tiny creature’s strength was marvellous. It gasped, it fought, its little limbs struggled beneath her, it writhed until the cold hand fell away, and then, its baby mouth set free, it fell a-shrieking. Its cries were not like those of a new-born thing, but fierce and shrill, and even held the sound of infant passion. ’Twas not a thing to let its life go easily, ’twas of those born to do battle.
Its lusty screaming pierced her ear perhaps—she drew a long, slow breath, and then another, and another still—the last one trembled and stopped short, and the last cinder fell dead from the fire.
It is “a wintry morning at the close of 1685”, and the heroine of our story has almost been smothered by her poor doomed mother. Nine children has poor Lady Daphne borne, all of them daughters, and with each successive childbed disappointment her abusive husband, Sir Jeoffry of Wildairs Hall, has become more and more enraged at his wife’s inability to bring forth a son. Six of the girl children have already perished; two survive, hidden away in a dingy nursery, and they are about to be joined by their baby sister, who survives her doomed mother’s feeble attempt at infanticide, meant to save her last child from a dreadful future fate.
Clorinda – our heroine, the baby-that-almost-was-smothered – is made of much sterner stuff than her mother, and she grows into a fiery-spirited, stunningly beautiful child. Catching her father’s eye by her forceful personality and wicked temper (he can totally relate), Clorinda spends her years until her fifteenth birthday hanging out with her father and his hard-drinking, hard-riding, gambling, womanizing cronies, while the sisters languish in their dismal corner of the Hall.
At fifteen Clorinda suddenly casts of her tomboyish persona and reinvents herself as a proper young lady, forcing herself out into society and making quite a stir what with her flashing eyes, unspeakable beauty, and rapier-sharp wit, not to mention her fairy-like dancing ability and gorgeous clothes.
The transformation continues, with the expected setbacks, including that of a blackmailing shadow from Clorinda’s heedless past. Luckily Clorinda’s elder sister Anne stands by her, and between the two of them Clorinda attains her marriage to the man she loves, and the downfall of her bitter enemy.
An absolutely overwritten almost-gothic romance – and I say “almost-gothic” because though it is set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries it is deeply and awfully Victorian in style, all attempts by its author to set the scene with dramatically archaic language and descriptions of silks and brocades and paduasoys aside.
The occasional humour that enlivens FHB’s other books seems to be almost entirely missing here; there is an absolute earnestness which serves the highlight the improbabilities of Clorinda’s transformation and many successes, and Sister Anne is just as unbelievable in her saintly self-sacrifice; Anne’s deathbed scene at the end of the novel is stunning in its adherence to the stereotype.
An interesting novel in that it rounds out one’s familiarity with this author’s substantial body of work, but otherwise not particularly recommended by me for readers of the current day and age. A just-readable Victorian-age curiousity of a novel rather than a lost treasure or a hidden gem, I’m afraid.