A Lady of Quality by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Over the last ten years or so I have tracked down and read all of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult writing. I had been totally unaware that before her Harry Potter moment (with Little Lord Fauntleroy) she had been well known for many years as a successful and popular author. Since I found this out I have had hours of enjoyment reading everything I could lay my hands on and loving them all.

A Lady of Quality is one title I have had difficulty tracking down. I did, eventually, but my copy is a really ancient edition, in a dull maroon hard back and more than slightly foxed so though it has been sitting on my shelves I have not opened it. Then this beautiful new copy, published by Hesperus, dropped through my letter box.

A Lady of Quality was published in 1896 and I gather it was the second bestselling book in the USA that year. I will admit straight away to having some slight difficulty with it. First of all, unusually for this author, it is set in 1690 and, therefore, the use of language is different from her other titles nearly all set in Victorian times.

Twas sir Jeoffrey who was louder than any other, he having drunk even deeper than the rest, and though ‘twas his boast that he could carry a bottle more than any other man, and see all his guests under the table, his last night’s bout had left him in ill humour and boisterous. He strode about, casting oaths at the dogs and rating the servants and when he mounted his big black horse ‘twas amid such a clamour of voices and baying hounds that the place was like Pandemonium

Sir Jeoffrey is an unpleasant man, bullying to his wife and servants and thoroughly unlikeable. His wife, ignored and brow beaten gives birth to a child, a girl, and expires in so doing. The baby called Clorinda turns out to be like her father with a will of iron and a temper to match. Her father rejoices in this, making her his pet, encouraging her as she grows older to drink, swear and ride like a man. Her two younger sisters are left despised in the shadows and are there purely to do Clorinda’s bidding.

Of course, she grows up into a beautiful woman, imperious and proud with whom all men fall in love and, of course, she treats them all badly. Eventually when she finally meets her match and falls in love she is shocked to find that she cannot have the man she wants and, another who she despises has knowledge of some of her past misdeeds that could be dangerous if they were known. So desperate measures are called for and murder and mayhem ensue.

This is an intriguing book and worth reading as part of the Hodgson Burnett oeuvre, but I have to be honest and say that though I read it to the end, I found all the characters in A Lady of Quality deeply unpleasant and unlovable. The author never returned to this period again for which I give thanks as I received the impression that she was not comfortable with the time or the historical language and, therefore, it did not ring true. I was put in mind of another author, Georgette Heyer, who essayed a few books outside her usual Regency period in which she was incomparable, and the results were stilted and tedious. I am thinking of Beauvallet and Simon the Coldheart. Perhaps, FH Burnett just got a bit tired of her usual settings and wanted to try something new, but, thankfully she never did this again and continued to write in her usual wonderful way.

As I said, this was one of her most popular and bestselling books so she certainly knew her market better than I and it is interesting to read. Sadly, not one of my favourites, but it might well be yours.

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Elaine Simpson-Long blogs at Random Jottings

Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Lady of Quality (Hesperus, London, 2014) 978-1843915294, paperback original, 256 pages.

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