I wonder why it is that there are certain very famous literary heroines of whom I am quite fond that mostly elicit feelings of annoyance in many other readers? I admit I tend to be (perhaps overly) sympathetic in my reading. I wonder if it is a good thing to admit that maybe I am so sympathetic towards them as I find I have some of the same feelings or shortcomings (as the case may be) as they do. Are you wondering who I am referring to? Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Effi Briest, Edna Pontellier and now I can add to the list Eline Vere. Of course let me clarify that just a bit by saying that I realize they are very flawed women and have many weaknesses. How much is it a weakness of character rather than a failure of society, I wonder, though (each case/each heroine being unique)? I guess that is up to each reader to decide. Whatever their failings you have to admit they are certainly all very human.
I've been thinking of these questions as I read the Dutch classic Eline Vere by Louis Couperus. The other heroines I mention come to mind as Eline Vere has been called the Dutch Madame Bovary. I picked up this Couperus novel a few years back though it went back to the library essentially unread. It wasn't the story, rather it was was a matter of timing and the fact that it is one hefty book coming in at just over 500 pages. I should probably have given it a better chance then, however, as I am now finding it hard to set aside now. Always a matter of timing, but maybe now is better than then anyway (all my 'Dutch' books are proving to be excellent reads so far).
I am only a third of the way in, so this is not a proper 'telling you all about the book' post, rather a teaser of what's catching my attention at the moment. The story begins slowly and moves at a leisurely pace. I think the subtitle is 'a Novel of The Hague'. I still need to educate myself on both the author, Louis Couperus, and about the country, but I have read that The Hague, while not the capital is the seat of the country's government. It is one of the larger cities, but I get the feeling that the story, which was published in 1889, refers to it in terms of it being a provincial city. Maybe that refers more to society and its attitudes than culturally or geographically?
After the deaths of her parents, Eline (in her early twenties still) goes to live with her sister, brother-in-law and their son. Betsy is the elder of the two and has married the man who Eline was walking out with. She doesn't seem to hold it against Betsy and she gets on well with Henk still. She thinks of him more as a brother figure now more than anything else. She and Betsy often have a very strained relationship--bickering over small things, though they share a love for parties and social gatherings. They are middle class well-off and dress well.
Eline has the most divine room, almost an apartment-like setting in Betsy's home and she has an income of her own. She has a reputation for being something of an heiress, so maybe a good catch in terms of wife material, but she has always turned down offers of marriage. She loves beautiful things, elegant clothes, loves music and both sings and plays the piano. But she is also given to fits of melancholy and nervousness. You can sense about her a feeling of discontent and early on in the story she says if she had been born a man she would surely have made herself famous.
What has made me sympathetic towards Eline is her feeling of unhappiness in her life. Different situations don't mean I can't relate to that feeling that something important is missing. Something else I shouldn't admit to. She has had a crush on an opera singer. She doesn't want to admit to it to her family, but she goes about collecting portraits of him that are sold in stores--even going so far once to buying several in one shop in Amsterdam knowing she will never go back and they will never see her again. She carefully puts them into an album and pulls it out to look at and dream over creating these elaborate fantasies over a life with him--an artistic life singing and performing together.
She never goes back to the same shop twice and would never admit to any of this to her family. But you know how these crushes go. They are never realistic. And eventually reality does rear its ugly head. Eline has just gone to see her beloved Fabrice perform and sees him in an entirely different light. He is nothing like her fantasy or even like his portraits. He's old and maybe even a little crude looking. There is nothing heroic about him and he even looks more like a tradesman than an artist. So into the fire goes the pictures and she falls once again into a bout of melancholia. (Okay, so I said I could often relate to these heroines since I have on occasion similar feelings or experiences? The thing is, crazy as it might sound, I could almost picture myself doing something like that. Maybe not creating an album of treasures like Eline, but I am sure my own imagination could easily run away with itself in just such a way . . . ).
To be in such a state is perhaps not the best circumstances to think of marrying, but that is the direction Eline's story is going. Then again, maybe it is just the time? Will she be like Emma Bovary and wish for that happy fantasy life rather than be fully planted in reality? I'll let you know as Eline's story plays out over the next few hundred pages. Although 'not a lot happens' in this story, there is still lots going on and a full cast of characters. I'm finding it fascinating reading and don't even mind lugging it about with me each day back and forth on the bus.
I like Couperus's writing so much I have even started his shorter novel Inevitable and have one other book by him on my potential reading pile. I'll tell you more about that book and the others I'm reading next time. I am hoping to post once a week over the course of the next three months. I have loads of good books on my reading pile, and you'll be hearing lots about them later.
And I have a treat in store, my Dutch friend Cath has kindly agreed to guest post here. She'll be writing about whatever strikes her fancy and will have a unique perspective on Dutch literature and culture. She'll be here tomorrow and over the course of the summer, too, so please do stop back this weekend. I know I am thoroughly enjoying my reading project and hope you will, too.