Hurrah! Another review of an Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel! Her novels stimulated a heated debate at our reading group; some felt she was simply sub-standard Henry James or Edith Wharton and not worth reading – others firmly disagreed. I suspect that the book I read, Tante, was the best of the bunch.
Review by Thecla W:
The heroine, Felicia Merrick, lives with her father, a writer with intellectual pretensions. At a house party she meets two young men, Maurice Wynne and Geoffrey Daunt, as well as Lady Angela, who has an unspoken understanding with Maurice. Geoffrey is a rising politician. Maurice is penniless and is expected to propose at some point to Angela, who is wealthy and in love with him.
Maurice and Felicia fall in love and conduct their courtship largely by letter while Maurice continues a round of country house visits, pondering ways he might earn a living. Feeling unable to do this, he decides he must release Felicia which he does by letter. Geoffrey, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Felicia. Learning that she loves Maurice and wishing her to be happy, he offers to set Maurice up financially so that they can marry. Maurice had been on the verge of proposing to Angela but accepts Geoffrey’s offer. He writes a letter to Angela which suggests that he is marrying Felicia because he feels he has to, implying that she (Felicia) had taken his “irresponsible love-making” seriously rather than lightly as he did. Maurice and Felicia marry and the focus of the second part of the novel is the attempts of Angela to destroy their happiness.
This is an Edwardian novel of relationships in the vein of Henry James or Edith Wharton. The story involves detailed portrayal of the characters’ emotions, confrontations and relationships, culminating in a sudden melodramatic ending.
Although she is English rather than American, Felicia is very much the honest and direct young girl up against “Old World” sophistication and intrigue in the person of the somewhat older Angela. Angela is helplessly in love with Maurice but has never shown this in the years she has been waiting for him to propose to her. She is ostensibly thoughtful and idealistic but in personal relationships is selfish and can be malicious.
“Her thoughts dwelt upon lofty towers; her motives and actions often scuffled in the dust”
“her sympathy,her tenderness and her claiming of highest aims were only tools to her… altruistic tools used always for egotistic ends”.
After Maurice and Felicia have married, Angela tries to befriend Felicia but is rebuffed. There are effective scenes in which Angela’s gushing and falsely affectionate approaches to Felicia (“I long to love you….You must let me help you in your quest”) come up against Felicia’s down-to-earth responses, such as “You don’t really know me at all, so please don’t talk about me as if you did”.
Angela inhabits a world in which manipulative game-playing is common; Felicia has no time for this and simply cuts through it,discomfiting Angela in the process and leaving her feeling humiliated and determined to destroy their marriage.
Angela is portrayed vividly and negatively. Adjectives used to describe her include baleful,poisonous and rapacious. She is likened to a bird of prey and, more than once, to a snake. Even the sound of her skirts as she walks are said to be “like the dry rustle of a snake”.
Sedgwick is also good on Maurice’s weakness and tendency to follow the path of least resistance, while convincing himself he is acting for the good of others. His love for Felicia is genuine but he cannot marry without an income. He does nothing to try to accomplish this and back in London, contemplating his debts he decides to release Felicia from the engagement:
“finally to renounce her would show the truest love for her”
And, writing to her that he hopes she will still love him,
“He would not see clearly that in so clinging he set himself – rather than Felicia – free”.
The letter he writes to Angela telling her that he is to marry Felicia implies that he is marrying her out of pity. It is easier to say this than to tell Angela he doesn’t love her.
He accepts Geoffrey’s financial support and doesn’t feel any sense of urgency about finding work. In fact it is Felicia who feels that their life is purposeless and finds some translating work for herself.
In spite of this, he is presented as someone not unworthy of Felicia’s love and Geoffrey’s friendship.
For me, Geoffrey is the weak point in the novel. However much he loves Felicia, his offer of financial support is unconvincing. He is not even especially wealthy.
The ending is also rather abrupt as well as melodramatic. Angela has told Felicia that Maurice loved her and not Felicia and has produced the letter as evidence. Felicia, who now realizes she loves Geoffrey, leaves Maurice but Geoffrey persuades her to return. They hope to retrieve the letter she left but they are too late. Maurice has read it and killed himself.
This novel takes a while to get going and feels rather unbalanced. I found the second half of the story, in which Angela’s machinations are the focus, more enjoyable than the first. She is an early version of the tyrannical, manipulative older women in Sedgwick’s later fiction, such as Tante. The vividness of her character also serves to unbalance things – evil being more interesting than good.
The ending seemed almost to belong to another book entirely. Another lurch to melodrama as at the end of Frank Danby’s Concert Pitch (1913). Is this a feature of a particular type of Edwardian fiction?