RogerBW's Blog

The Young Lady from Paris, Joan Aiken 05 July 2014

In the late 1850s, Ellen Paget is employed as a governess in Paris.

This is the third of Aiken's loose trilogy of novels about the Paget family; it's not necessary to have read the others (and I haven't).

The book falls into two major sections: at first Ellen is plucked out of her comfortable position teaching at a school in Brussels and taken to be a governess in the de la Ferté household, where the husband is a gambler, the wife more interested in her literary friends and her mannish companion than in providing the necessary male heir, and the young daughter uncontrollable and prone to tantrums. There's plenty of detail, which sometimes seems to descend into a checklist of important French writers of the era (George Sands, Baudelaire, Flaubert). Ellen is essentially a spectator here; she makes some progress with the little girl, but doesn't manage to establish friendly relations with the wife, though the companion, one Germaine de Rhetorée, is more interested in her.

Then suddenly that all falls apart in a shocking way, and it's back to Ellen's home in Petworth in West Sussex (the house that was Aiken's own home at the time of writing), about which we've had occasional passages before. For the second half of the book we have a more traditionally Aiken sort of plot, with Ellen trying to pry her recently-widowed domestic tyrant father out of the claws of a nasty and designing housekeeper, who's painted as the villain in lines a bit too thick for my taste: every single time there's a possibility of Mrs Pike doing a wrongness, she chooses that option, whether or not it actually does her any good.

Everything rattles along, with more or less incident, but usually something nasty is happening; other strands involve the convict Matt Bilbo, out of prison after twenty years having been unjustly convicted by Ellen's father but apparently an utterly forgiving and Good Man, the Bishop of Chichester's supervision of restoration works at the Cathedral, and Ellen's married but complaining sisters. Things get a bit convoluted, though they are all connected in the end.

It's all pretty grim. There are rather more deaths than I'd expect from most authors of fiction set in the nineteenth century; it's a mixture of historical romance (though the actual romance is minimal) and gothic suspense. Everything gets drawn out for just a bit too long, then a promising bit of action is simply omitted completely and all the plot threads are hastily snipped and tied off in the final chapter, with all the survivors brought back on stage to tell you what happened to them (with a final bit of tragedy just in case you thought you might get away with a happy ending).

Aiken shows a distressing stylistic tendency to drop into the middle of a sentence a list comprising a thing, another thing, a third thing, sometimes a fourth thing, all without putting any conjunction between them; once one notices it it seems to happen on nearly every page. There are various minor Americanisms throughout ("I shall write him", etc.) which jar a little with this English story. (Yes, I read a British edition; the American version had the title The Girl From Paris.) The romantic hero seems to occupy a hero-shaped hole in the plot without particularly reaching out to touch the sides or win us, or the heroine, over (there are some false candidates for the position dangled in front of the unsuspecting reader). Ellen's principal attribute is that she is supposedly an enthusiastic reader, but after she returns to England we barely hear of her reading anything.

I've never been a great fan of Aiken, although I enjoyed her minor work The Five-Minute Marriage. I was unsure here quite what she'd intended to write: the adventures of an Englishwoman with literary tendencies in Paris could have been a book in itself, as could the plot with Ellen's father, but instead they're uncomfortably pushed together into a single volume, and the story never quite seems to find a consistent narrative voice.

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