Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached House

Emily Eden by Simon Jacques Rochard, August 1835 (detail). Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London

The critic Q.D. Leavis identified the Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant as the bridge between Jane Austen and George Eliot. But there's another writer who might also be characterized as a connection between the two: Emily Eden. 

Eden was born in 1797, the year in which the 21-year-old Austen was writing First Impressions (later to be published as Pride and Prejudice), and died in 1869, the year in which the 49-year-old Eliot was writing Middlemarch. Eden's witty, ironic style was strongly influenced by Austen's work, and her fictional themes anticipate those of Eliot and other late Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell.

Eden never married. After her mother's death in 1818 she lived with her brother George and her sister Frances in London and later in India, where George served as governor-general between 1836 and 1842. On their return she published a book of her own lithographs, Portraits of the People and Princes of India (1844), and later an account of her travels in Simla, Up the Country (1869). 

She also wrote two novels. The first to be published (anonymously) was The Semi-Detached House (1859); its success motivated her to publish a novel she'd written and put in a drawer thirty years earlier, The Semi-Attached Couple (1860).

Title page of The Semi-Attached Couple. Image source: Internet Archive

The semi-attached couple is Lord Teviot and Helen Beaufort. Lord Teviot,

with five country houses—being four more than he could live in; with 120,000l. a year—being 30,000l. less than he could spend; . . .and the good looks of the poorest of younger brothers—what could he want but a wife? Many people (himself among the rest) thought he was better without one; but he changed his mind the first time he saw Helen. [1]

Helen is the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Eskdale:

Yes, I knew Helen from her childhood, and had thought that such a gentle, gay creature could never be touched by the cares and griefs that fall on the common herd. . .Why was she to escape? I do not wish to be cynical; but if a stone is thrown into our garden, is it not sure to knock off the head of our most valuable tulip? If a cup of coffee is to be spilled, does it not make a point of falling on our richest brocade gown? If we do lose our reticule, does not the misfortune occur on the only day on which we had left our purse in it? [2]

After a "long attachment" of a few weeks and several balls, Lord Teviot proposes, and is accepted. But as this foreshadowing suggests, the marriage is not a success, and "cares and griefs" soon follow. He is short-tempered and jealous, and she is quick to take offense. They seem to willfully misunderstand one another. Their travails are dissected with schadenfreude by their gossipy, ill-natured neighbors, and seized on by opportunistic acquaintances who want to widen the rift between them for their own purposes.

The novel also follows the fortunes of Eliza Douglas, an unmarried daughter of one of those ill-natured neighbors. While visiting with Lord and Lady Teviot at their estate St. Mary's she meets Colonel Beaufort, Helen's cousin, and is smitten:

Poor girl! little did she think that while she sat quietly in the carriage, pondering over Colonel Beaufort's tritest remarks, [and] hoarding [them] up as most important recollections. . .little did she know that the ungrateful creature had dismissed from his mind all the conversations that had ever passed between them. . .and that she was merely to him a good-humoured little Miss Something whom he had met at St. Mary's. Shocking discrepancy! but so it will be, when young, ignorant girls fall in love as, I grieve to say, they often do with blasés men of the world. However, give them time and opportunity, and there is no saying whether the warm heart will not soften and conquer the hard one at last. [3]

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to highlight the ironic narrative voice that Eden inherited from Austen but makes her own in passages such as these.

Of a marital dispute between Mr. and Mrs. Douglas about her suspicions of Lord Teviot:

[Mrs. Douglas] assured Mr. Douglas. . .that if she saw any chance of being of use to Helen the next day, she would do what she could; but as for not thinking ill of Lord Teviot and Lady Portmore and Colonel Stuart, and indeed of most people, she really could not oblige him by going so far as that. [4]

Of Mrs. Douglas musing on a prospective suitor for her eldest daughter Sarah, Mr. Wentworth, who is "drab-coloured in look, coat, and ideas": 

There was what artists would call a good deal of neutral tint in his composition; but he was well-principled, good-natured, reasonably wealthy, and attached to Sarah, so, as times go, she had reason to be thankful. It is well to lay hold of the exception, when the rule generally is, that the men who may marry our daughters are neither good, rich, nor attached to anything but themselves. [5]

Of the particular perspective that a life of extreme privilege affords:

Lady Eskdale had been dorlotée [coddled] through a prosperous life into a quiet belief that everything was for the best; and well might she think so, for she had had the best of everything. [6]

Title page of The Semi-Detached House. Image source: Internet Archive

The heroine of The Semi-Detached House is Blanche, Lady Chester, who, while her husband is away on a diplomatic mission, takes the abode of the title during her pregnancy (a word that never occurs in the novel; you have to read carefully not to be surprised when she goes into labor). "Semi-detached" means, in the way of all real-estate listings, completely attached, and Blanche is at first concerned about the proximity of her plebeian next-door neighbors, the Hopkinsons: he is a merchant captain away at sea, and she is the plump mother of two daughters, and grandmother to a three-year-old boy. But Blanche is soon chastened when she comes to know of the Hopkinsons' decency, generosity, and goodness. 

And she soon learns as well of the dangers of snobbery and prejudice, as exemplified by the Baroness Sampson. As the near-Old-Testament name suggests, the Sampsons are coded as Jewish, despite their ostensibly Christian faith. The Baroness shuns the two Hopkinson girls, whose sweet, guileless, and considerate natures her niece Rachel has discovered:

'I never saw two more uninteresting girls—no manner, no usage du monde [worldliness]. What could you find to say to them, Rachel? I am sure you have seen nothing like them in my set.'

'Nothing whatever that bears the slightest resemblance to them, Aunt.' [7]

Baron Sampson is as odious as capitalists come:

The conversation was gradually drawn by the Baron to foreign trade, to China, and finally to a projected Hongkong railroad. 'I am delighted to obtain such valuable information from such excellent authority; I have taken a few shares in this company—not, as you may imagine, with any idea of profit. . .I feel that railroads, and harbors—in fact, facilities for trade are the best means for the conversion of our Eastern brethren. . .Though these railroads may carry opium, Christianity will have its ticket too.' [8]

The Baron alludes, of course, to British trade with China, which involved military invasion and occupation to compel the Chinese to buy British opium (grown in India) in exchange for porcelain, silk, and, above all, the substance to which Britons were primarily addicted: tea. The Baron is clearly a model for the mendacious railroad financier Melmotte in Trollope's great novel The Way We Live Now (1875).

Emily Eden's fiction features scenes of marital disharmony, class snobbery, political chicanery, and financial fraudulence, but it is not primarily for their plots that her novels deserve to be read. Instead, it is her witty and ironic narrative voice that makes her seem to speak to us so vividly.

The full texts of The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House are available online through Mary Mark Ockerbloom's "A Celebration of Women Writers" project. For other formats, see

  1. Any echoes of "a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" are entirely intentional.
  2. Emily Eden, The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. I, Ch. I.
  3. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VI.
  4. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. IV.
  5. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VII.
  6. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VIII.
  7. Emily Eden, The Semi-Detached House, Ch. XVI.
  8. The Semi-Detached House, Ch. XVI.

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