Monday, July 19, 2010
MONSIEUR MAURICE by Amelia B. Edwards
The very name of "Amelia B. Edwards" summons up an image of a prim Victorian lady, and the above photo kinda reinforces that idea. However, it seems she was quite an interesting lady. Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892) was a novelist, poet, journalist, suffragette, travel writer, amateur archaeologist, and passionate advocate for the preservation of Egyptian monuments. She published her first full-length novel at the age of 24, and in 1864 scored a big success with BARBARA'S STORY, a tale of bigamy, and later with 1880's LORD BRACKENBURY, her last novel, that was a runaway bestseller.
She was well-regarded in her time as a social and domestic novelist, but of her fiction, her ghost stories are the most remembered works these days. And gives us the third of Bleiler's collection, FIVE VICTORIAN GHOST NOVELS, although MONSIEUR MAURICE is really more of a novella, or extended short story, than a real novel.
Edwards' work as a domestic novelist shows in this. It's narrated by Gretchen Bernhard, in a flashback back to when she was six years old, shuttling from an unlikable aunt in Nuremberg to living with her father, an official at the Electoral Residenz at Bruhl in 1819. There, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, she becomes friends with a civilized prisoner there, the gentleman of the title. He's actually a very nice man, a polymath who's knowledgeable about the arts and sciences (his furniture includes a telescope and microscope), and serves as a sort of tutor to the girl. As years pass, there's an escape attempt, and then a poisoning attempt following the revelation of a plot, and both times Maurice's life is saved by the ghost of a faithful Indian servant. Eventually, the Elector uncovers that his imprisonment was wrongful, and he is released.
Sounds rather blah, but Edwards gives it enough detail and charm to be entertaining without being overly cloying. The story of Gretchen's friendship with the French prisoner is actually fairly pleasant reading, but one does get impatient for the supernatural content...and when it shows up, it's blink-and-you'll-miss-it, which is the problem. Being part of a collection of "Victorian ghost novels," one expects more ghosts. There's not much of a presence of the supernatural here; it just shows up when it's needed, and life gets back to normal. MONSIEUR MAURICE is probably the most stereotypically Victorian of the novels here, with its ordered content and the ordered lives of its protagonists.
So it's not great as a horror story, but works as a pleasant kindasorta coming-of-age tale with guest appearances by a ghost.
Edwards, however, got more interesting. Shortly after publishing MONSIEUR MAURICE in 1873, she embarked on a tour of Egypt, which resulted in her bestselling travel book A THOUSAND MILES UP THE NILE, and Edwards devoted the rest of her life and work to Egyptology, receiving three honorary degrees and endowing England's first chair in Egyptology, which appropriately went to her friend, Flinders Petrie, who defended her when she was being edged out of archaeology by sexism. And in the late 20th century, she inspired Elizabeth Peters' lady archaeologist, Amelia Peabody.
Edwards never married, and did her traveling with a female companion. (Can't help but wonder...) She actually made enough from her writing to be self-sufficient after her parents' deaths, so she didn't need to marry, but still, makes me a bit curious.
Anyway, MONSIEUR MAURICE is an OK story, but the story of its author is fascinating.