06 January 2012

The Old English Baron, by Clara Reeve

This book was so lackluster that I completely forgot about it about 5 minutes after I finished it. I read it in one go when the jetlag woke me up at 6am (I have to admit, another pro of e-books - being able to read in bed without disturbing the precious angel snoring beside you), and it was pretty bland. Clara Reeve was a big defender of romance, and the Preface to this book includes a rather preachy explanation of how the "business of Romance is, first, to excite the attention; and secondly, to direct it to some useful, or at least innocent, end" (though she does admit that it "may be abused, and become an instrument to corrupt the manners and morals of mankind"). She cites Castle of Otranto as a major influence, but complains that it's overdone and so exaggerated as to be comical (which she's kind of correct about, but that's also what makes Walpole fun! the campiness of it!), and proposes that her novel will have all the benefits with none of the flaws.

As it turns out, her novel is dull as dishwater, a bland swapped-at-birth sort of story with a little ghosting thrown in. Perhaps it's because I've been reading so many fantastic (by which I mean the mode of writing, not the quality) novels lately; I kept expecting there to be some suspicion as to whether the ghosts were staged, or some acknowledgement that spectres aren't an everyday occurrence, but there was nothing of the sort. They were a thoroughly un-momentous part of the story, largely tangential. The narrative acts as if they brought the mistaken identity story to light, but it seems pretty clear that it could have been uncovered without supernatural invention. Indeed, as is so often the case with these stories (you see the same thing in Henrietta, come to think of it), the clear give-away is the fact that the person in question always strikes everyone as looking (and usually behaving) awfully noble for someone allegedly of the lower classes. This, of course,  subtly reinforces the class divide even as it allegedly muddies it - some people are just born better!

Overall, a pretty unremarkable novel, ironic, given Reeve's passionate defenses of the genre.

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