23 November 2013

The Two Emilys, by Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee's The Recess is a somewhat overlooked classic of late eighteenth-century literature, an important precursor to the historical novel and a really fascinating text. I was hoping that The Two Emilys would be similar, but perhaps more light-hearted (The Recess is kind of astonishingly grim, on balance), not least because it seemed more like an adventure story. It turns out not to be all that cheerful: there is a distinct lack of campiness and glee, it's actually a pretty straight-forward tumultuous and highly dramatic romance. Which is kind of disappointing, though there are some very interesting things about it.

The plot is actually quite bizarre, and revolves around a lot of misunderstandings. I'm about to spoil the heck out of it, so stop reading if you actually intend to read the book and prefer suspense. The main storyline (which is preceded by several others) centers around Emily Arden, who is to marry her cousin, Marquis Lenox. Lenox is not particularly keen on the match, because Emily lives in Ireland, and Lenox thinks that she is probably a "wild rustic" and not a very suitable wife. She, on the other hand, has spent her whole life dreaming of him. She seizes an opportunity to meet him incognito, and alas! learns his low opinion of her, but also manages to make him fall in love with her. Somewhat stung but still in love, she sets up an elaborate farce (in the book's terms, a 'romance') to deepen his attachment before she will reveal her true identity. Meanwhile, however, she also incurs the wrath of another Emily (Note: there is no good reason why every woman in this book is named Emily. I mean, there is exactly one moment where it comes up, which could easily have been handled differently.), Emily Fitzallen, who feels that Emily Arden cheated her out of an inheritance, and vows revenge. So anyhow, Marquis Lenox is successfully charmed by Emily Arden, and he sets off on a grand tour with her father, Sir Edward, hoping to figure out a way to marry this 'other' woman instead of Sir Edward's daughter. Everything seems lined up for a happy ending, but alas! While traveling, Lenox meets a charming young man named Hypolito, and becomes strongly attached to him. One night, while drunk, he discovers that Hypolito is actually a woman! And she insists that she is in fact Emily Arden in disguise, and that he marry her immediately. Apparently forgetting about the other woman he ostensibly loves, he does so (not noticing the different last name on the marriage certificate. I guess the idea was that he did notice the first name, which is why they needed to be the same.). But then! There is an earthquake! So their marriage is unconsummated, and though he miraculously survives, he assumes she's dead, and when he randomly encounters his "true" love, and learns that she is Emily Arden, he is baffled but pleased. They are all set to marry, when the spectre of Hypolito appears at the ceremony and terrifies the Marquis, who faints. The marriage is considered final, and then begin various miseries, as he is blackmailed by Evil Emily, and cannot bring himself to confess (the excuse being that Good Emily is pregnant and he fears the news will kill her). Things get increasingly thorny, as Sir Edward learns what he thinks is the truth and kills the Marquis, telling Good Emily that she was never truly married and refuses to see her baby. Then Sir Edward finds out that there was no way for Evil Emily to prove that she had been married, and regrets killing the Marquis, who meanwhile pops up again in secret meetings with Good Emily, as it turns out that he convinced the monks in charge of his burial to pretend he was dead. Then Emily pretends to be dead so as to run away with the Marquis and leave Sir Edward, whom she now despises (though shockingly, she leaves her baby with him, under the care of Conor, her faithful Irish nurse). Everyone keeps regretting the negative consequences of their pretenses (if Good Emily had not tricked the Marquis, Evil Emily would not have had access to him; if the monks had not told Sir Edward that the Marquis was dead, he would not have forced Emily to write a will that claimed the child as hers rather than its fathers, etc). Emily and the Marquis in fact return to Ireland, where they live in a simple cottage next to the castle that rightfully belongs to Emily (though we are told that it has been so remodeled that it's more like a big fancy house now) and have a pack of children. 10 years later, the fathers of both arrive, with the first child in tow (also named Emily, of course), and the whole family ultimately ends up reunited, aside from a few other bizarre revelations and plot twists, including the reappearance of Evil Emily, who is forgiven before she dies.

Oddly, as with a Polish novel that I recently re-read and still like, Malwina, or the Heart's Intuition, this text also closes with an ├╝ber happy ending, but not before one last test, as if the novel resolved itself, then doubted a little and had to reassure everyone a final time that things really, for reals, ended well. As in Malwina, where the heart is always the ultimate arbiter, able to suss out its true objects even when directly contradicted by outside appearance, in The Two Emilys characters are often "strangely drawn" to the people they are actually supposed to love, though this procedure also fails sometimes, as with Conor, who can no longer recognize her beloved Emily once her hearing is gone and Emily's appearance has changed.

There is also a curious back-and-forth in terms of portrayals of Ireland; on the one hand, there seems to be some pushback against the 'wild Irish' stereotype, as both Emilys are quite cultured and well-educated individuals, even if one is kind of evil. But there are also moments when their servants are unfavourably classed with the Italian servants in the book, as both being deeply superstitious and rather savage. It is notable that, as with Malwina, the lower classes do get to be quasi-developed characters, which I think is less common in other European fictions, but I could be totally wrong.

Anyways, overall, not actually the most entertaining of books, unless you study eighteenth-century romance.

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