Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Semi–attached Couple & The Semi–detached House Emily Eden

So much for the author, now what about the books? ‘The Semi-attached Couple’ was written around 1830 but not published until 1860, the year after ‘The Semi-detached house’ came out (slightly confusing). Both books feel very much of their time; in ‘The Semi-attached Couple’ it’s all horse drawn carriages and has an unmistakably Georgian feel (says she bought up on Georgette Heyer). Indeed more than anything else (and certainly more than an Austen feel) reading ‘The Semi-attached Couple’ felt like reading an early Heyer. For me that’s a good thing but I must admit that I was slightly surprised at how very fresh the writing seemed, but then I find myself saying that a lot so it’s undoubtedly as much to do with my perceptions of how an older book should read as it is to do with authorial style.

‘The Semi-attached Couple’ is the story of what should be a fairy tale marriage but somehow isn’t. The bride is young, lovely, and the indulged darling of her wealthy parents her husband to be is the catch of the season, the owner of fabulous wealth and the sort of looks normally thrown away on penniless younger sons, so what could possibly go wrong? Well all sorts of things it seems. The bride has been a sheltered pet all her life and at 18 is still all but a child, she isn’t ready to leave her home, hasn’t fallen entirely in love with her husband, is to inexperienced to express her fears and is frightened by her grooms passion for her. He in his turn becomes jealous of her families influence over her, is cast into despair by her lack of affection, and all too frequently allows his temper to get the better of him. This is the situation during their honeymoon when a large house party invites itself to share the couple’s home.

I’m reading Trollope’s ‘The Small House at Allington’ at the moment and finding some interesting parallels between the two books, if nothing else I’m forming a very definite impression of the house party as a hot bed of intrigue, gossip, and interference. I’m not giving much away when I say that ‘The Semi-attached Couple’ ends happily after all the complications and misunderstandings are smoothed out – the story itself is the weak part of the book. What makes the it are the details and the secondary characters who I think must have been based on people Eden knew; Lady Portmore who is by way of being the villainess of the piece makes me think she might have been based on Lady Caroline Lamb (although this is just a guess, and I might be miles off). There is a fascinating and funny account of an election and despite the happy endings some acerbic asides about marriage. Eden who was 30 when she wrote this book was jilted as a young woman, I wouldn’t describe her as bitter, but very clear sighted about both the advantages and disadvantages for a woman in swapping the position of daughter for wife. Eden herself became a sister.

In 'The Semi-detached House’ the newly married and pregnant Lady Chester is being installed in the suburbs whilst her husband makes a diplomatic expedition to Berlin. Blanche Chester is very young (18), highly strung, volatile, and very assured about her position in society. Her neighbours are a good solid suburban family who are slightly over awed by their grand new neighbours (although they initially think Lady Chester may be either a cast off wife or a discreetly installed mistress). Throughout the book the Chester household and manners are held up against the other grand occupants of the neighbourhood; Baron and Baroness Sampson, social climbers, new money, snobbish, and Jewish. I wondered for a while if it was their Jewishness which was a problem, but on the whole it’s not – although it may be that there is some small prejudice there – but it is much more that they are concerned only with facade and not at all with substance. Blanche who is the personification of egalitarian good will with her lower middle class neighbours is still savvy enough at 18 to instinctively avoid the Baroness’ overtures, but it’s the Sampson’s with all their faults and unpleasantness which make the story interesting adding some necessary shade to proceedings, that and Eden’s sense of humour which is an absolute delight.


  1. I have this sitting on my shelf back in England and I look forward to reading it eventually! This review is enticing indeed - I have not read any Regency novelists aside from Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe and I am intrigued to read more!

  2. I think you'll love it. It's very easy going and funny.

  3. Certainly two more books to add to my massive must have pile. Thanks for posting about these.