Having written several books skewering Victorian and Edwardian society, in 1906 novelist Edith Nesbit suddenly reversed course, writing an adult novel, The Incomplete Amorist, with scenes that out-Victorian the most Victorian and sentimental of novels, complete with an innocent girl, a seducer, and a vicar of the strictest morality. Long term Nesbit readers can be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, they are reading here.
As the book opens, young Betty, one of the most irritating characters Nesbit ever created, is sewing. Perhaps recognizing that this, um, lacks a certain excitement, Nesbit adds that Betty wants to be an artist (meant to be mildly shocking) and soon introduces a (gasp) young man, Vernon, who (gasp) sees her without a chaperone (gasp gasp) and even — holds her hand in order to tell her fortune. (You can all just go ahead and pass out now, the way the witness to this mostly does.)
The two are (gasp gasp gasp) caught by Betty’s stepfather, an earnest, well meaning, highly moralistic vicar, and in a scene that does not read the same way now as it might have in 1906, the vicar hits Vernon, who behaves nobly by bowing and going away, and locks Betty in her room. She’s eighteen. As a glimpse into late Victorian social structures this is all highly entertaining, but contemporary readers may find this just a bit — a bit — overwrought.
But at least understandable, unlike the next bit, where Betty’s aunt arrives and decides to send the shocking young girl off to Paris, under the valid idea that she’ll get over Vernon faster in Paris than locked up in her room. Okay, that’s explicable; what makes no sense is that the stepfather — who, just a chapter ago was locking an eighteen year old in her room, with bars on the window, because a man was holding her hand — agrees to let this same girl go to Paris and study art under the chaperonage of a complete stranger. Yeah. Right.
In any case, off Betty goes to Paris, where, conveniently enough for the plot, the chaperone dies (incredibly enough, no arrangements have been made to inform the parents of the girls that their chaperone is dead) which leaves Betty alone in Paris, oh noes, only with considerably more money than most heroines have in this situation, so it’s not so bad, only, she’s young and innocent so she just happens to end up in a restaurant frequented by prostitutes (not outright stated, but Nesbit certainly intends adult readers to get that impression) where, coincidentally, she meets Temple, a friend of Vernon’s, and conveniently befriends one of the prostitutes who decides, with some reason, that someone has to chaperon Betty. Meanwhile, Vernon shows up in Paris, because, well, it’s an artist thing to do, and he’s an artist of sorts, along with — coincidentally! — his ex-girlfriend, Lady St. Craye, who, upset that Vernon is not, shall we say, the devoted sort, flounced off and married another man, who has conveniently died leaving her lots of money. (Coincidence and convenience greatly thicken this novel.)
And now, finally, the novel gets going.
Betty and Vernon are, sort of, in a way, in love — that is, they have convinced themselves that what they feel is love, as Vernon feels an increasing desire to protect Betty — presumably from my increasing desire to hit her — and Betty feels increasingly fascinated by and jealous of Vernon, even as she tells herself that she really should. Temple is, more genuinely, in love with Betty (I felt horribly sorry for the poor man) but worried that he might not be since he is still fascinated by Lady St. Craye. And Lady St. Craye, the one person in touch with her feelings, is still in love with Vernon, and although she recognizes that being in love with a womanizer (of sorts) is not particularly wise, she is still a better partner for Vernon than Betty — since she can see and accept Vernon for what she is.
Got it? It’s okay if you don’t.
What makes this part rise above Victorian soap opera is the way Nesbit shows, with quick flickers of her pen, the way the strictures of polite behavior both dictate and camouflage their feelings. Vernon and Betty genuinely never have the chance to really know each other, and to realize what it obvious to pretty much everyone else in the book, even the minor characters I’m not mentioning — they are completely wrong for each other. The same problem happens with Temple and Lady St. Craye. The very pressures to get married, to find the one true love, are the same pressures preventing anyone in this book from getting to know anyone else, or, as Vernon and Temple note, to know what love actually is. Even when Betty — gasp, gasp, gasp — has dinner alone with Vernon, shocking her less socially bound American friends, she never gets to know him, because both are so restricted in what the conventions allow them to say — even as they are trying to flout those same conventions.
And in the end, Nesbit suddenly veers from the expected ending. Betty never reforms Vernon. She marries Temple, but only after she has told him that she is in love with Vernon, and if Nesbit does show us a few tiny steps of their slow, delightful courtship, she never shows us their engagement and wedding. And if Vernon never reforms, and never quite loses his misogynistic touch, he is never exactly punished in the good Victorian fashion, either. He loses Betty, yes, but he ends up marrying Lady St. Craye, who, in the end, holds him as “the mother’s arm goes round the shoulders of the child.”
Nearly all of the women of this book end up settling for considerably less than they wanted, or perhaps deserve. The two exceptions are Betty’s landlady, who earns a considerable sum taking bribes from everyone, and Betty’s unmarried aunt, able to travel and earn her own life. And even she, as we learn, has deep regrets: since she did not marry, she has never had a child of her own.
This is decidedly one of Nesbit’s bleaker works, even with its surface happy ending, and I’m not entirely certain I can recommend it, especially to contemporary readers who may well wonder what much of the fuss is about. But if you are interested in the way manners could control relationships in early 20th century British society, you might want to check this book out. (It’s available for free on many places on the internet.) And you may find yourself quietly shuddering at the image of Betty, desperately smoking cigarettes to feel more masculine.
And this book represents a new pathway for Nesbit, one where, caught by her growing reputation as an author for just “children,” she attempted to stake out a claim for more serious writing. It was a tone she would also begin to take in her children’s books, which from this point on would emphasize a more serious, “literary” tone, using less of her biting wit and sarcasm. (This is particularly clear in The House of Arden/Harding’s Luck duology, although ever here Nesbit could not entirely silence her biting wit.) We’ll be seeing that effect in the next few weeks.
Mari Ness needs a method that will allow her to reach through books and hit characters on the head. Instead, she is trying to content herself with stabbing at the rosebushes outside her house in central Florida.