This is a bit outside my comfort zone – I can read late Victorian lit very nicely thank you, but when it comes to the earlier Victorian novels it seems to be a different ballgame. The vocabulary is more esoteric, the syntax more complex – it’s just plain archaic and takes me awhile to get used to it.
That said – I do enjoy a good classic novel because, as I’ve likely said here before, it gives me a real bird’s-eye view into the times – not some historical fiction writer’s explanation and interpretation of the times (which is nothing against historical fiction. As a result the things a reader of the author’s own times would know are often mysteries to me and I have to do a bit of research. Also the style and the substance of the narrative form has changed – we rarely see and intrusive author these days, but in Evan Harrington the narrator is almost a character. Also, social “class” is not a common theme of literature about 21st century times.
All of this goes to say that Evan Harrington, published in 1860, was not an easy read for me. The eponymous hero is the only son of the pompous, pretentious, charming and debt-plagued tailor, Melchisedek Harrington. Evan has three sisters who have married fairly well and one, Louisa, very well indeed. They resemble their father for class-consciousness – to the point of snobbery and lack of charm. Alas, the reality is the family is of the trades class!
Thanks to Louisa’s assistance (she’s now the Countess) and Evan’s lengthy visit to her in Portugal, Evan has fallen in love with Rose, a lady of the English nobility, and he can’t afford to look as shabby as he really is when they return to England for the funeral of Evan’s father. The Countess Louisa is even less inclined to look as her reality is.
But the romance is further complicated by the fact that Evan, who is good and honest and brave – noble you might say – as well as quite handsome – now has to pay off his father’s debts somehow – basically by taking over the shop – becoming a tailor! Horrors!
Their mother, Mrs Mel, has some noble blood in her background and is a very decent sort of woman – she also insists that Evan pay the debts. He gets a lead on someone to train him and sets off. But en route he runs into an old school chum and the two go to Beckley Court where they take part in several sporting events and other social activities. Louisa and her sisters are there along with Rose, her mother, grandmother and assorted other folks are there. The plot revolves around Louisa’s keeping her and Evan’s family background secret so Evan and Rose can get married. It’s pretty funny because Louisa is such a snob and fraud.
Themes – Dad is lower class by heredity – Mom has greater claims to gentility due to her father who was a lawyer. Evan seems to have inherited the best of each – and he is the best of the siblings. Louisa has inherited the worst.