Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Vagabondia by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Last week I posted a short story of Burnett's, Racketty-Packetty House, in its entirety because: a) I find it delightful, b) it is out of copyright, and c) because it seemed a perfect introduction to today's review of Vagabondia, a romance novel. Both stories pit the bohemian against bourgeois. In Rackety-Packety House, the old fashioned, run down dolls make the best of their lot, even when their dear little old house is threatened to be disintegrated in flames. They dance and sing and have pretend feasts to buoy their spirits, in a manner much resembling the residents of "Vagabondia," which is what the Crewe family (apparently a favorite name of Burnett's) entitle their place in the world, living on the outskirts of society in impoverished gentility. Their parents being dead and the oldest son, Philip, being a struggling artist with a young family as well as his three sisters to support, the family maintains a carefree existence in their crumbling town home in an unfashionable area of London. At the center of the struggling vagabonds is our heroine, Dolly: an indomitable force of good cheer and industriousness, always up for a good fight with the "Philistines." Unfortunately, Dolly depends on one of this disapproving camp for her small salary, for she works as a governess for a distant relation. Lady Augusta thinks it inappropriate for Dolly to be so collected in her fallen circumstances, a sensation which costs the poor girl her job, early in the novel. No big deal for Dolly. She will have more time at home for her family and more time for Griffith Donne, her long time fiancee.

I adore Dolly, who has a great deal of an Elizabeth Bennet about her, as in this description:
It was a very fortunate thing for Dolly that she was not easily discomposed. Most girls entering a room full of people, evidently unemployed, and in consequence naturally prone to not too charitable criticism of new-comers, might have lost self-possession. Not so Dolly Crewe. Being announced, she came in neither with unnecessary hurry nor timidly, and with not the least atom of shrinking from the eyes turned toward her; and, simple and unassuming a young person as she appeared on first sight, more than one pair of eyes in question found themselves attracted by the white merino, the white shoulders, the elaborate tresses, and the serene, innocent-looking orbs.
Burnett introduces her in all her faults and glories, acknowledging her over indulgence of the vanity of the youngest sister, Molly, and her heartless flirtation with other men. This last vice is held accountable for Griffith's insecurities as he drudges his life in a thankless job, dreaming of the day he might afford to marry his love. My impression was that he was just a pea goose. I do not think Dolly's devotion to the man deserved or warranted. It becomes a flaw in her otherwise fascinating character. Unfortunately, the main romance is the worst part of this romance novel.

Much more fascinating are Dolly's attempts to maneuver her vulnerable family through a sometimes heartless world, particularly the adventures of the devastatingly beautiful and dangerously naive Molly and and middle sister Aimee, the only pragmatist is the family. I was hooked, turning page after page, hoping to see how the two older sisters would save Molly from what almost seems her inevitable fate. Vagabondia is an excellent exploration of class structure and character strength. I recommend reading it for Dolly's sake. She is a creature deserving of a better fate than that which her authoress subjects her, though the book does have a happy ending. It provided me with a similar sensation to that which I experience reading either Mansfield Park or Sense and Sesnisibility. The hero is unworthy of the heroine.

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