Over April and May I revisited Emily Eden’s The Semi-detached House with a Goodreads group. This is Eden’s second novel, though published first in 1859. Emily Eden (1797–1869) was born into an aristocratic family (her father William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland was a diplomat and politician (also author of a book on Penal Law) while her brother George Eden was Governor General in India), and was an author and poet. She published only two novels, this and The Semi-attached Couple, while her other writings are travel writings and letters from her time spent in India when she and her sister accompanied George on a two-and-a-half-year-long trip across the northern provinces in the country. While there, she also made many portraits of royalty and commoners in India. (Find a short profile I wrote of her here)
In The Semi-detached House, we meet Lady Blanche Chester who is eighteen and married just a short while, and in the process of looking for a house to live in while her husband Arthur, Lord Chester goes to the continent accompanying a diplomatic mission for some months. Her twin Aileen Grenville is to stay with her. Arthur has identified a semi-detached home, Pleasance which he thinks will suit his wife well but the high-strung and over imaginative Blanche is horrified at the thought and conjures up all sorts of images in her mind of possible neighbours (a fat lady in mittens with daughters who play ‘Partant pour la Syrie’). When told that the neighbours are a family, the Hopkinsons, she exclaims:
I felt certain their name would be either Tomkinson or Hopkinson-I was not sure which-but I thought the chances were in favour of Hop rather than Tom.
Meanwhile the Hopkinsons have heard of a new neighbour and because of malicious gossip (not naming names) in a newspaper, Mrs Hopkinson is led to believe that her new neighbour is to be either Lord Chester’s mistress or an estranged wife. Neither side is as a result keen to make an acquaintance with the other, and in their first encounter in church, their discomfort is not far from the surface.
But things are soon put to rights as Blanche finds the Hopkinsons (even if they do match the image she had of them in her mind) are actually genteel and kind people, while Mrs Hopkinson finds that Lady Blanche is Arthur’s wife. The families begin to get friendly and it is soon discovered that Arthur, before he had come into his title, had served aboard Captain Hopkinson’s ship.
Alongside, we have the morose and morbid Willis, Mrs Hopkinsons’ son-in-law (married to her step-daughter by her first marriage), who introduces them to Baron and Baroness Sampson. Nouveau riche and ostentatious, the Sampsons also seek to move into the neighbourhood, looking for an equally flashy home. They are keen on involving Willis in the Baron’s schemes for investment but Mrs Hopkinson is cautious. The Baroness meanwhile is anxious to better herself socially and throws flamboyant entertainments, lacking in taste, and makes every attempt to get to know Lady Blanche and her titled relatives and friends. We also have the Baroness’ niece, Rachel Monteneros who is living with the Sampsons but has very different sensibilities and tastes.
The book is mostly the story of the interaction between the Chesters and Hopkinsons (misunderstandings turning into friendship) and the Sampsons’ attempts to climb socially and financially.
Eden’s novel is a charming read with plenty of humour and witty dialogue, a story of misunderstandings and assumptions, families and friendships, with an amusing plot, collection of (somewhat) eccentric characters, and a dash of romance (oh and also some social climbery, if that is a word).
I really enjoyed Eden’s characters—among them we have young Blanche who is not only over-imaginative and high-strung but also a bit of a hypochondriac; but she is often checked by her aunt Sarah, a sensible lady who minces no words
[Blanche:] “All sorts of things, Aunt Sarah. In the first place, I am very ill—Aileen has sent for Dr. Ayscough. Now, just hear my cough.”
“A failure, I think,” said Aunt Sarah, “an attempt at a cough rather than the thing itself.”
And when Blanche tries to play matchmaker,
My dear Blanche, I hope you are not going to turn into a match-maker; of all the dangerous manufactories in the world, that is the worst, and the most unsatisfactory.”
I do like to help young people in their love affairs,” said Blanche in a reflective staid tone, implying that her long life of eighteen years and her twelve months of marriage had given her the experience and benevolence appropriate to a prosperous old age.
Also her doctor, Dr Ayscough who has attended her since her childhood knows well how to calm her down. Then we have Mrs Hopkinsons’ son-in-law Willis who considers himself ever a sufferer, and always the worst hit by any misfortune. When Pleasance has a small fire for instance, for him:
If it had been in Columbia Lodge [Willis’ home], he had no doubt that the house would have been burnt down, but he was used to trials, and should quietly have submitted to that.
He is also rather morbid as seen in his choice of toy for his son:
It was a nice little model of a tomb, and when a spring was touched at the side, a skeleton jumped out, made a bow, and jumped in again. … Willis really was fond of his child, and did not press his pet skeleton on their acceptance when he found they thought it might frighten Charlie. In fact, he was rather glad to take it home again, for his own diversion.
Mrs Hopkinson on the other hand is sensible and though sometimes diffident is able to hold her own and never allows herself to be imposed upon. Like Aunt Sarah, she can speak her mind as well. Her daughters Janet and Rose are kind-hearted and charming, and a couple of the romance threads in the story involve them. Another romance plays out involving Blanche’s twin Aileen but most of these progress subtly and more as side-plots not the main.
Rachel Monteneros is another character who stands out with her penchant for Shakespeare and her sensibilities that are very different from her relations. Rachel has never had anyone who truly cares for her or even is able to love her, but once she meets the Hopkinsons and Willis (who begins to take an interest in her), she does her best to help them not be taken in by the Sampsons. What I liked about her was that she is a strong character who can take control of her own affairs and protect herself when needed; no attempts at flattery or manipulation take her in.
In the plot are misunderstandings aplenty from the initial misunderstanding between the Chesters and Hopkinsons to some in the romance threads and even between Blanche and her father-in-law. But most are easily and pleasantly resolved and none develop into any full blown drama (which was something that kept the tone light and which I appreciated).
The Baroness’ social ambitions lead to many ‘rival’ parties and entertainments being hosted, where it is mostly the Baroness’ who is ‘competing’ with the Chesters or the Duchess of St Maur (on one occasion), though the latter are mosty unaware of the former. The Baroness’ false snobbery also gets into a bit of a soup as she ends up slighting Blanche and Aileen whom she doesn’t recognize and also the Hopkinsons who are not as common as she believes; and she must try to mend things which she effusively attempts.
Alongside we have Baron Sampson with his money-making schemes and cons in which he involves Willis, and then is trying to bring in Captain Hopkinson when he returns wealthier after his most recent voyage. (Others in my Goodreads book group felt he was a lot like Trollope’s Melmotte from The Way We Live Now)
I did feel perhaps the book suffered somewhat because it was so short; as a consequence, some aspects are not as well explored as they should have been. For instance, Baron Sampson’s doings could have been narrated in more detail which would have made his great escape (a nicely done scene) all the better, and added a little more ’meat’ to our tale. Also, some of the relationships between the characters and even some of the characters themselves didn’t come through clearly, like it took me time to work out who exactly it was that Willis had been married to, and Baron Sampson and his son, Baron Moses who one sometimes can’t tell apart.
But as a whole this was a quite delightful read, and I had good fun revisiting it, particularly because of the humour and the characters.
A few more of the lines I liked (I can’t really include all because there were a lot):
I am afraid I was tant soit peu farouche,” (Mrs. Hopkinson wondered what that was, but settled that it was French for disagreeable,) “but it is a point with me to keep young people in their proper places.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Hopkinson, who was quite bewildered, “improper places are shocking things.”4
A “Willis-making-the-best-of-it” was quite a new specimen, a rare and interesting animal; and when it further appeared that his black coat had disappeared, and that he was dressed like any other common-place gentleman, in an equally common-place dark coat, the pity of the family knew no bounds.
p.s. There are some observations that are a bit anti-Semitic, which can make one a bit uncomfortable.