Book Review: Carolyn See on Jude Morgan's Fun ‘An Accomplished Woman'

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 24, 2009

An Accomplished Woman

By Jude Morgan

St. Martin's. 407 pp. $24.95

Normally, I'm not a fan of Jane Austen knockoffs. Their very existence seems to speak of a failure of the imagination or worse -- a gaggle of grown-up women readers adjourning behind closed discussion-group doors to decide which man in the story is cuter; whom should the heroine marry? These books give fans a chance to upgrade their literary credentials while indulging in the girliest of preoccupations: Is it good for a girl to have a brain and show it? Is it really okay for a girl not to get married? Is it permissible for a girl to fall for a foul seducer? Is pursuing leisure a respectable way to spend your time, or is it better to pursue "accomplishments," when, after the chips are down, any brainless ninny can marry a lunkhead, pop out a couple of offspring and win, by default, the Womanhood Race?

"An Accomplished Woman" brings up all these questions once again, but in a perfectly blameless and charming manner.

Safely ensconced the rural English countryside during the time of the Napoleonic wars, Lydia Templeton has just turned 30. She is learned in Latin and has contributed to the periodicals of the day using a female pseudonym, so scandalized male scholars have sent irate letters suggesting she might be better off pursuing matters of hearth and home. She plays the pianoforte most admirably. She loves the pleasures of good conversation, is a devoted friend and daughter and is, of course, very beautiful.

Yet she's pitied and feared much more than she's esteemed. She's not womanly enough; she won't simper, and she won't play dumb. And she was fool enough, about 10 years earlier, to turn down a proposal of marriage from Lewis Durrant, the most eligible bachelor in the neighborhood, who was so arrogant in his advances that she rejected him out of hand.

Lydia lives now on her family estate, with her loving father. She has an income of 10,000 pounds, so she's protected from the awful prospect of having to become a governess. But her father isn't getting any younger, and after his death, Lydia's brother, wife and children will inherit the property. Like it or not, Lydia will have to make some provision for herself in the future. Meanwhile, she stays at home, fielding mean remarks from other women who feel smug in their own domestic safety. She passes her time by taking rides, paying social calls, giving dinner parties. Her calm life is quickened, again, from time to time by Mr. Durant, whose beautiful property is only a few miles from their own.

The first part of the novel consists of extensive exposition: Who are the neighbors hereabouts, and how does Lydia deal with them? The most awful character by far is a certain Penelope Vawser, who is an abominable woman -- snobbish, pretentious, dumb as a plank. She will turn up later in the plot as a reminder of how awful -- and stupid -- women can be. And then there is a lengthy back story about Lydia's beautiful, unfortunate mother, who eloped with a scoundrel and was hauled back into polite society just in the nick of time by Lydia's father and the good offices of Lady Eastmond, Lydia's godmother. Thus, when Lady Eastmond asks Lydia for a favor, Lydia is duty-bound to honor it.

The favor is this: Lady Eastmond now has a ward, Phoebe Rae, a lovely orphan of 20 who will inherit a fortune of 50,000 pounds. The girl is very impressionable, however, and has managed, during her first months in society, to fall in love with two men at the same time. Would Lydia mind journeying to Bath for the summer season with Phoebe? The two men in question will certainly show up; could Lydia advise the young woman on the right marital choice? Lydia gnashes her teeth. She hates Bath. It's a notorious marriage market, and its idiotic social whirl is odious to her, but she complies.

And Phoebe turns out to be a dear girl. She agonizes between her two suitors: Mr. Allardyce, a well-spoken diplomat with an awful mother only a son could love (she dresses in turbans and feathers and fancies herself the queen of Bath society), and Mr. Beck, a hyperactive romantic poet who pounds his chest and produces wretched verse. Lydia likes the diplomat and scorns the poet -- who would not? -- but Phoebe remains unable to choose.

"An Accomplished Woman" is a lot of fun to read. It's like taking a class in the English novel in summer school. We get to see again all the venerable set pieces of that genre -- those outdoor excursions in two coaches, but who's going to ride in which coach? The illnesses, the insults, the wardrobes, the chance meetings in the Pump Room. The awfulness of Mrs. Vawser compared to the awfulness of Mr. Allardyce's preening mama. And, of course, the continuous fear that Phoebe will run off with a scoundrel and be expelled from respectable society. And not to give away the plot, but if Phoebe did run off, there would be a chase across the countryside to intercept the pair before Phoebe's life is ruined. A dunce could guess from Page 10 how this narrative will turn out. But that doesn't take away from the very real pleasure it delivers.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Why Reagan rebelled against his conservative base.

-- Mona Lisa's smile drives viewers -- and thieves -- crazy.

-- What really happened during the Columbine tragedy.

-- A breakthrough about a galaxy far, far away.

-- And the stripper who married the soldier.

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