Easter found me in the country this year. The delights of urban life were beginning to pall somewhat after several months’ uninterrupted enjoyment of pollution, city smells, and peak hour crushes in the metro, so I decided to take advantage of the Easter holidays and took the train down to my parents’ home in Aquitaine. I was in luck: the weather during the first few days was like a foretaste of summer, and I rediscovered the pleasures of breakfasting outside and spending long hours basking in the sun. Just as I was mentally reviewing my stock of summer dresses and worrying about the unaccustomed lack of rain affecting the hydrangeas and the rhododendrons, however, the weather took a turn for the worse. Faced with grey skies, chilly temperatures, and a relentless, dry wind that slammed doors, set the windows rattling in their frames, and hopelessly tangled the branches of the climbing roses, there was only one sensible thing to do: retire to bed with a generous slice of my sister’s coffee cake and a comforting book.
Rooting around in the attic, which is filled with books I’ve brought back over the years whenever my own bookshelves in Paris have got too crowded, I came upon Jude Morgan’s An Accomplished Woman, and knew it was just what I needed. I read it a year or so ago, and while I remembered I had enjoyed it, my memories were just hazy enough to enable me to look forward to rediscovering the intricacies of the plot. I was in the mood for Regency England, and Jude Morgan’s Regency England is particularly satisfying, being more romantic than Jane Austen and more intelligent than Georgette Heyer – dear Georgette can get a tad wearisome at times, I find, what with all that period slang and her slightly one-dimensional cast of characters…
But to get back to Jude Morgan. Lydia Templeton, “handsome, clever, and rich”, has been the mistress of her father’s house ever since the death of her mother when she was a young girl, and has reached the age of thirty without feeling the least desire or need to exchange the joys of her single state for the more dubious ones of matrimony. She is perfectly content to devote her time to music and books, spend two months of every year in London at her elder brother’s house, and spar with her closest neighbour and former suitor, Mr Durrant, whom she sees as insufferably arrogant. So when her godmother asks her to accompany a young relative of hers to Bath for the summer and act as her chaperon and adviser, she is filled with nothing but horror. Eventually, Lydia reluctantly agrees, out of a sense of obligation to her godmother, and because her prospective charge, despite being in love with two men at the same time, turns out to be far more sensible and amiable than she had anticipated. That Mr Durrant has grown tired of his bachelor state and has also decided to go to Bath to look for a wife has nothing to do with her, of course, but promises at least to offer some entertainment.
Just as Lydia is congratulating herself on having pulled through the ordeal with flying colours, everything comes tumbling down about her ears and she is painfully humbled. She is forced to the bitter realization that she has failed in her duty to her young charge, Phoebe, both as a chaperon and as a friend, and that all her cleverness and many accomplishments have been insufficient to prevent her from being a pitiful judge of character and making several potentially disastrous mistakes. Luckily, Mr Durrant comes to the rescue, and confirms what the reader has always suspected, that he is a stand-up fellow. Phoebe’s reputation and happiness are saved, and Mr Durrant and Lydia are left to confess to each other that despite hurt pride, bruised sensibilities, unwarranted prejudice, and ten years of denial, they have always loved each other and always will.
An Accomplished Woman is a clever and amusing re-write of Emma that also draws on Jane Austen’s other novels and Georgette Heyer’s romances for inspiration, all the while managing to remain fresh and original. Jude Morgan’s novel is neither a pale copy of Austen nor a silly pandering to the expectations of Heyer fans. Morgan is clever enough to have created a character who differs enough from her model to have an identity and personality all her own: for though Lydia is quite as selfish and superior as Emma, she is also older, more experienced, more irritable, and – in her defence – not at all interested in match-making. Her sin is not snobbery or meddling, but a supercilious tendency to believe that she is above the common mistakes of her fellow men. I would add to that a sharp tongue: her comments to Mr Durrant are not merely provocative, but downright wounding – but as they stem from disappointed affections and the gentleman sees fit to forgive her, they must be considered, all in all, a lesser evil. Furthermore, as deep anxiety and sincere repentance are experienced before relief and the joy of requited love, I venture to hope the moralists will be appeased and not begrudge her the felicity she finally attains. Altogether, An Accomplished Woman is a very satisfying read, approaching the subject of matrimony at the end of the eighteenth century with just the right mixture of levity and thoughtfulness, irony and romance.
© Florence Berlioz 2011