It's a shame that Louis Couperus's novel, Eline Vere is not read more and talked about more. Here is a heroine who feels so very alive to me--flesh and blood. She is someone I can sympathize with even at those moments when she is at her weakest. She's not perfect, quite flawed in many ways. A reader might often shake her head at Eline's behavior, but she is someone who grows into something more, has deeper feelings and understanding about herself by novel's end. She's never truly awful and never truly good and maybe that is why I could relate so well to her. She felt so very human. Her weaknesses and limitations are maybe even some of my own.
Eline has been compared to Flaubert's Madame Bovary--a woman who is not always well grounded in realities, or maybe better to say unhappy with the life she leads and all its many drudgeries. She is only too happy to imagine a better and more exciting life somewhere else, sentimental about novels, with a rich imagination and romantic proclivities and in Emma's case living well beyond her means. Eline shares a few of Emma's shortcomings. Eline Vere, the novel, reminds me too of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The similarities have less to do with the characters, Anna's and Eline's situations being very different, but the stories themselves follow similar narrative arcs. Each novel follows the fortunes of a full cast of characters, more than one family and romantic entanglements of several couples. Eline Vere, however, has less of the political than Tolstoy's novel. The subtitle, though, "A Novel of the Hague" hints at the oppressive nature of Dutch Society at a particular time and place. Eline Vere was published in 1889 not so very far away from the beginnings of modernity, and already Eline knows how unhappy the plight of an unmarried woman can be. There is something of the social about the novel, but really it is the heart of a woman, the spirit, that is what matters.
The novel opens with a party. Several young women are dressing themselves in preparation for a small theatrical they will perform at home. Taking scenes from literature and antiquity they will create tableaux-vivants for their guests' enjoyment. At this party is a large extended family and some of their friends--those characters whose concerns will be on the periphery of (and sometimes even taking center stage) of Eline's story. Already from the first pages the scene is set and Eline's personality is being formed that will follow throughout the course of the story. She has stayed at home, a "case of nerves". She's often left to the mercy of her nerves, her moods so changeable and even occasionally debilitating.
To paint a picture of Eline, and I think the cover illustration for the book captures the mood very well, she is a beautiful young twentysomething still unmarried and living with her sister and brother-in-law. Her parents have long been dead and the aunt she had been living with also not long buried. Whereas her older sister Betsy is somewhat frumpy and irritable, Eline is quite stylish. She is sophisticated with artistic tastes and an accomplished singer. Had she been born a man she would have certainly been someone famous, perhaps an actor or singer. But there are no opportunities for a woman of her social class, which is firmly in the Bourgeois. She's relatively well-off. She has a set of rooms (enviable, I say) in her sister's house that are comfortable and well-appointed. She's a pretty woman with pretty things, and maybe a little too languid for her own good.
The two sisters don't always get on very well. Betsy has married the man who had originally been courting Eline, but there are no hard feelings on Eline's part. Henk is much more, a much-loved brother these days. He has turned a little staid and homely and is sometimes on the taciturn side now that he is an 'old married man' with children. The sisters tend to bicker and quarrel over Eline's choices and behavior and will eventually have a falling out over a cousin who overstays his welcome in Betsy's house--much to Betsy's consternation.
I wonder if Eline had had some better role in life/in Society, some direction, if she would have been given to such bouts of romantic whimsy, and more, if she would have fallen into such melancholic moods. She is a young woman, and most young women do have romantic crushes. They might well fall (in the case of Eline) for a handsome opera singer and buy pictures of him to fill their scrapbook. When she does fall in love 'for real', or she believes she has fallen in love, the pendulum swings and she finds herself on top of the world. She is filled with happiness and joy and in many ways she settles down emotionally. Gone are the flights of fancy of her former schoolgirl crushes. She even seems more mature. Otto is a family friend and part of the large circle of family, friends and acquaintances that pepper this story. He is a good man with an ambitious future ahead of him. If Eline had before seemed a little uncertain, even a little flaky, Otto is grounded and Eline follows his lead.
All of a sudden, with their betrothal announced and their circle of friends happy, Eline is filled with self-doubt. It's easy to write her off as young and self-absorbed but Eline Vere is a complex woman who is attuned to the darker side of her own personality. The rigid role of wife and mother is a little stultifying to conceive. She wonders if she is even truly in love with Otto, she doesn't know how to simply be herself and she feels as though she is always only filling some role of the woman she is expected to be. From the heights of sheer happiness she plummets and along the way her health is affected.
If I place Eline Vere alongside Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest (all novels I have read and loved), you can imagine what Eline's outcome is likely to be. I won't give anything away, and as much as I have already felt that I have shared with you about Eline and her story, I have barely touched upon anything that happens, and much happens in this novel. It's an impressive story, all the more so as Couperus was only twenty-six when it was published. It's not just Eline's story and it's not necessarily an unhappy story or even ends unhappily ultimately. It's one of those books I would happily press into your hands if I could and I know already it is going to be one of my top ten reads this year, maybe even my favorite so far.
My notes have filled six pages in my book journal and I haven't even finished reading the novel's afterword yet, so if you see a post-Eline Vere post later this week don't be surprised. If I don't stop now this will get far too unwieldy (if I have not already lost you along the way)! If you are looking for a well-written classic that is an engaging read, do give Eline Vere a go and don't be put off by the size of the book--I never felt that reading fatigue that often accompanies longish reads.
Now my attention can turn fully to Louis Couperus's Inevitable that I have mentioned before. I also have a novella-length novel called Ecstasy ("a young and beautiful widow falls in love with a notorious womanizer . . .") that I might still be able to squeeze in as well. My Dutch reading continues apace.