A Fair Barbarian – Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Fair Barbarian ALBA novel about a young American woman who comes to visit her aunt in England, and the effect her unrefined candor has on the conservative inhabitants of the town. 1880.

As I made my way through A Fair Barbarian, I wasn’t sure if I would write a review. I see ALB as a resource for reading recommendations—-which is an important distinction from reviews. When’s the last time you asked someone to tell you about a book you needn’t bother reading? I like to read books that are worth my time, and I like to tell you about those books.

A Fair Barbarian, I decided in the end, was actually worth my time. About halfway through, I considered putting the book down, even in spite of the fact that it’s a short book so wouldn’t take long to finish. I told myself I knew how it was going to turn out, and I knew the book wasn’t going to change my life (ah, what high reading standards I like to keep!). So, I put it down. And then I went hunting for another book…and realized that while A Fair Barbarian isn’t a “wow”-er, it has more strengths than weaknesses.

I did end up finishing it. I chose it in part because it was a shorter read (around 260 pages). I just finished a big read, and the next book I have lined up will be another chunkster. A Fair Barbarian is light not only in weight, but in subject matter. And sometimes, these are welcome changes.

A Fair BarbarianThe plot itself is quite straight-forward. It begins with Octavia Bassett arriving one day, without warning, at her aunt’s house, in a small English town called Slowbridge. Octavia’s father was supposed to have arrived with her, but he was called back to America on urgent business; he owns lots of shares in the Nevada diamond industry. He’s very wealthy and, as a widower, has been in the habit of showering all of his money and affection on his only child Octavia. As Slowbridge is scandalized to learn, Octavia has spent time in places like “Bloody Gulch,” and lived for months at a time in mining towns where there were no other women. (The jaded adult in me, fueled by tales like Cimarron, mutters that realistically there likely would have been other women hanging around a mine—-just maybe not ladies, if you catch my meaning.)

Octavia’s charm lies not only in her beauty and her fancy gowns and diamond rings, but in her absolute unawareness that these are commodities are extraordinary, not to be worn so casually. Her aunt, horrified and embarrassed for what her neighbors will think, tries to communicate these finer social points to Octavia. Octavia, however, replies candidly: these are pretty, quality gowns, are they not? And her father gifted her these rings, so what could be more natural than wearing them?

Not everyone sees Octavia’s charms, though. Among her chief opponents is Lady Theobald, reigning queen of Slowbridge society. Lady Theobald is not used to being contested. She’s used to her own granddaughter, who obeys her every word. And then here comes this American girl who, in her failure to submit, absolutely enrages Lady Theobald. A glimpse at her ladyship’s style:

She had chosen, as an appropriate festal costume, a funereal-black moire antique, enlivened by massive fringes and ornaments of jet; her jewelry being chains and manacles of the latter, which rattled as she moved, with a sound somewhat suggestive of bones.

It gets worse when a relative intended for Lady Theobald’s granddaughter comes to town and Octavia’s beauty and artlessness captures his attentions. Then there’s a mill owner who takes an interest in the meek granddaughter, and oh my heavens! Lady Theobald is quite beside herself.

In reading other reviews of this book, I found a phrase repeated again and again: “It’s like ____, but not as ____.” As in, it’s like Henry James (probably for its Americans-English clashes), except without all the fancy prose. Or: it’s like Jane Austen (um, because it’s old??), but less complex. I also saw, in the text itself, a fair comparison between Cranford and the town of Slowbridge.

There were lots of scenes and snippets featuring the dialogue of some extremely minor characters. These characters were given names, but dear goodness I didn’t even bother to keep them straight. I got that the main cast was what really mattered; the supporting cast was just there to provide variety in the narration, so we don’t get tired of hearing the narrator directly relaying town gossip. Sort of like a Greek chorus.

Though I’ve devoted little attention to her in this review, my favorite character was actually the granddaughter, Lucia. At the story’s beginning she’s a total pushover, molded into a docile charge by her domineering grandmother. Under the friendly (and unintentional) influence of Octavia, Lucia begins to explore a different manner of behavior. When she tentatively entered this new territory, it was her story I became interested in. Octavia, I’m fairly certain, could take care of herself, no matter what. But Lucia? It was in order to hear her story that I kept on reading.

Incidentally, as it turned out, I knew what the characters would do, but not how the story would end. (Yes, it turns out there is a difference.) Was the book worth reading? Yes. Was it high-calibre fiction, well-written? Yes, most definitely. Was it life changing? Eh…It didn’t change my life, I’ll just say that. But if you’re looking for a light, charming read filled with enjoyable characters, I do recommend it.

Also, there’s some wonderfully awful names in there…Slowbridge? As in, where life passes slowly? Oldelough (Lady’s Theobald’s house)? As in, where old standards reign supreme? And Barold?? That doesn’t sound like a man’s name; that sounds like an insult!

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