A novel about a young, naive woman who falls for a rakish artist, but fate and the woman’s family intervene to keep the two apart. 1906.
If you’ve heard of Edith Nesbit, it’s likely that you think of her as a children’s book author. (The Railway Children and the “Five Children” series, to name a couple of her most popular works.) Like Frances Hodgson Burnett, though, Nesbit also published several books for adults. Also like Burnett, these works are much, much less popular than her work for children.
Why is this? I’m working on a general theory. During my reading of non-“classic” literature from around the turn of the century, in some ways I’ve felt like I’m up against a wall. That wall represents the limits of familiarity. When I read books published around 1915, that wall is a little further away. Later in the century, and closer to my own time, the wall is so far away, it’s nothing more than a shape in the distant background.
When I read books from the 1950s (which I read a lot of, incidentally), it feels a little “foreign,” in that the story’s social and cultural backdrop is slightly different from my own. Still, it’s quite recognizable. The earlier in the century I read, so to speak, that backdrop begins to feel more and more foreign. It’s recognizable, but more so because it’s similar to something else I’ve read—fiction or non-fiction—and not because it’s a way of life I’ve experienced myself.
So what I’ve noticed is that 1910, or thereabouts, is where the cutoff lies. I do still understand a lot of the story. From my experience with other books that take place during that period, I understand the fashion of the time, social mores, cultural expectations, as well as the more logistical things like money, transportation, letter-writing, and paying calls.
But I’m discovering that stories published prior to 1910 lose me, to a certain extent, in one vital area: I don’t always connect with the characters as well. And I’m not really sure why this is the case. The writing itself reaches a high technical standard. The story lines are evenly paced, and the dialogue isn’t filled with unfamiliar slang. But there’s something about those characters (or possibly just how they’re depicted). They just don’t quite feel…real.
This is really my only complaint about The Incomplete Amorist, and I’m pretty sure time is at fault here, and not Edith Nesbit. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly lovely read. It starts off a trifle languid, but picks up its pace to the point where I scarcely put it down.
The story opens with small scenes of daily life for our heroine, Betty Desmond. Betty is in her late teens and has never left home. Both of her biological parents died long ago, so Betty has been raised by her stepfather, a clergyman with a weakness for antique books. Her stepfather has done his duty by her, raising Betty to be a moral lady, a contributing member of the community, and a good Christian. He loves her, too, as the narrator obliquely demonstrates for our benefit. In his commitment to not spoiling Betty, though, her stepfather has made a worse mistake: he’s made Betty think he doesn’t love her. As a result, Betty follows his orders, but gritting her teeth all the while.
I’m not sure there could be a better candidate for a little teenaged rebellion. Betty quickly gets her chance. One morning, she’s out sketching in the woods when she meets another artist, out in nature for the same reason. She starts talking to him, and he manipulates her into asking for another meeting. (It’s a clever conversation, really, and its format is repeated throughout the book: we first hear what each character is saying to themselves, followed by what they actually speak aloud.)
So Betty and the artist start meeting early in the mornings, when Betty can sneak out of the house without her absence being noted. They meet under the guise of artistic instruction, as Betty has always wanted to have lessons to further her drawing skills. For the artist, a Mr. Eustace Vernon (my, how names have changed in a century!), these lessons are just a pretense for seducing her. Vernon is a worldly man who views pretty women as delicious delicacies; he prefers to let no delicacy go untasted.
Of course, Betty and Vernon’s secret assignations are discovered in no time flat. It’s a small community, one where neighbors look out for each other and love to gossip. All it takes is a farmer, still smarting from his own daughter’s immoral disobedience, to go running to Betty’s stepfather with the news. The clergyman flies into a rage and confronts Vernon. Vernon, of course, insists the meetings were nothing more than artistic instruction. The clergyman becomes eloquent, quoting Bible passages about dangerous serpents. In a final mark of passion, he hits Vernon with his cane. Vernon bows and high-tails it on out of there.
For a brief while, locked in her room and furious at her stepfather, it looks like, if she can get the chance, Betty will run away with Vernon. Fortunately, Betty’s aunt returns from abroad and is able to mediate a compromise between Betty and her stepfather. The compromise is that Betty will get what she’s always wanted: to study art in Paris.
And so this is where Betty’s real adventures begin. She makes countless naive mistakes, one after another—the worst is when she goes to a cafe where those kind of women hang out…you know…loose women. (In keeping with the times, Nesbit’s indirect language makes it sound like this is a cafe filled with prostitutes. But we can’t expect Betty to actually be that naive. It makes a lot more sense that these are just…you know…loose women. Back in the day, I guess these amounted to pretty much the same thing.)
In Paris, Betty does further her artistic education—and in much safer hands than Vernon’s—but the real point is that she’s able to get out from under her stepfather’s watchful eye and discover independence. She also runs into Vernon again, but the two are a bit defensive after their last meeting. Eventually, under the guise of friendship, they form half of an uncomfortable quartet; the other two members are a wounded lover of Vernon’s and Vernon’s best friend.
Vernon is nearly as much a main character as Betty is, and I think he’s actually a lot more interesting. Another writer—perhaps one more prudish—would have created him as a caricature of a wicked playboy tempting a pure, innocent girl, and left things at that. Nesbit, fortunately, endows Vernon with more complexity and, quite possibly, with real feelings of his own.
As for my own feelings, I enjoyed The Incomplete Amorist. But it drove me a little crazy how the main characters never seemed to be telling the truth—and by this I don’t mean they were lying, exactly, just not really telling the truth. The completely truthful characters, Betty’s aunt, a loose woman Betty befriends, and a fellow Parisienne artist, were my absolutely favorites. I guess that in fiction, as in real life, I’m most drawn to truth-tellers. Or maybe I’m just a product of the other end of the century, when people (especially women) who tell the truth are not unconventional creatures to be feared, but rather to be admired.
I do recommend The Incomplete Amorist, though, especially if you enjoy Nesbit’s writing and other turn-of-the-century books. Also, if you wish you’d been alive to see Paris and the art world of the Belle Époque, here’s your chance!
And on a completely different note, what do you think of that illustration above? I loved the sporadic illustrations but was disturbed by their proportions…Is this woman, like, seven feet tall, with really tiny hands and a matching tiny tea set??