If you are anything like me, the name Francis Hodgson Burnett brings to mind books like A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, or Little Lord Fauntleroy. And what do those books share? They are all sweet, beloved children’s stories without an ounce of vice in them. Can you think of a more perfect main character than Sara Crewe from A Little Princess?
I did not expect much more from A Lady of Quality. Yet almost from the moment it began, the book took all my preconceived notions about Burnett and threw them out the window! I kept double-checking the author because I could not believe she wrote this.
The heroine of the story, Clorinda, behaves horrendously. She beats servants, belittles peers, swears, breaks commandments, and a whole lot more I won’t get into so that I don’t spoil anything. The point is, she is not a nice character. And yet, unlike what you would expect from a Victorian novel, she never gets her competences for her actions. If anything, the plot pardons it all! The story is heavy on melodrama and certainly sanitizes her by the end, but the process of getting her sanitized is what I found truly remarkable.
She isn’t a character you like, and yet precisely because of that she become redeemable. There is no really likable character in this book, but neither is anyone truly evil. (Okay, maybe one guy. But even the book pities him!) I did not expect the level of nuance that I found within the characters.
The story is a melodrama and a romance in the traditional sense and, at some level, it follows that line exactly. Everything builds up for the final, grand marriage at the end. Yet romantic love is not the only thing pushing this plot. Self-love and sisterly love and sacrificial love all play important roles in developing the characters and the story. While I might look for such themes today, I did not expect to find them in a little remembered book from 1896!
I think I need to read more by this author, especially her adult works!