A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Shipwreck – first part of Tales of Fancy, published in 1816 – begins, not surprisingly, with a shipwreck. Lady Earlingford and her daughter Viola are sailing to join the latter’s father, who occupies some kind of a governing position in India. A terrifying storm strikes, destroying the ship and most of its passengers, but the women are miraculously washed ashore on an exotic, and seemingly deserted, island. Lady Earlingford is a resourceful woman and strives to make life on the island bearable for her dejected daughter; luckily, the island seems to have an abundance of everything else but civilisation. Other necessary supplies (such as books and clean linen: no European person of high rank could surely survive on a desert island without books and proper linen) are found in the trunk, also washed ashore, belonging to Viola’s young cousin Edmund. Thanks to Lady Earlingford’s best efforts, the women are soon almost enjoying their life on the verdant island, and their days are filled with various crafts projects. (As Lady Earlingford and Viola started weaving little baskets and making oil lamps out of coconut, I began to suspect Burney had looked up these ideas on Pinterest. I half expected to see them start fashioning lampshades out of empty yoghurt containers.)
However, soon it turns out that the women are not alone on the island. Lady Earlingford comes across two other passengers who have been washed ashore: a little boy and his rescuer, a handsome young man called Mr FitzAymer. Mr FitzAymer, as it happens, is an acquaintance – and a detested one, at that, though the reason for Lady Earlingford’s abhorrence of him isn’t made explicit at first. She has her reasons to believe Viola wouldn’t be safe with him, so she dresses her daughter up in Edmund’s clothes, and they pass her off as a boy. FitzAymer doesn’t suspect a thing, though he does think ‘Edmund’ is a wimp for his age and tries to entice the boy to join him on hunting and fishing expeditions.
It’s obvious from the beginning that, after many trials and tribulations, Viola and FitzAymer are destined to be together. But how will the little group ever get back to the civilised world?
Viola’s name is no accident, and Burney underlines the echoes of Shakespeare with ample quotations. Heroines in circumstances like Viola’s often gain a wholly new dimension when they put on male clothing, and Viola is no exception. I only wish Burney had taken more pages out of Shakespeare’s book, and made more of Viola as Edmund: the interaction between FitzAymer and ‘Edmund’ is what makes this novel – and its hero – so likeable. I also wish Viola had been allowed to find more strength in herself. The male attire perhaps forces the author to dwell too much on her attractive qualities of ‘feminine softness’ and ‘timidity’. But it seems rather petty to blame an early 19th-century author for being too much of her own time, and Viola – though of course beautiful, pious, suitably timid, full of sensibility and goodness – is not one of those stereotypical ‘pictures of perfection’ that so annoyed Jane Austen. I suppose it’s rare enough to see a 19th-century heroine faint from nervous exhaustion whilst digging a grave during a thunderstorm.
The Shipwreck is a romance in the full sense of the word. It’s certainly a romance novel in the modern sense, but also combines elements of 19th-century romanticism and Shakespearean romance, and the result is a very likeable concoction. The island is almost magical: ‘the fit resort of Mountain Nymphs and Fawns’. The events may be improbable, but the characters are not; the surroundings may be exotic and strange, but the story enacted there doesn’t stray too far from the more decorous love stories of the time, set in English country houses and London society.
Well, okay, there are some nasty pirates, and you probably wouldn’t find rotting corpses in the drawing-rooms of London… but still.
What makes this tale especially interesting to me is its construction of a romantic hero. FitzAymer is handsome, quick-witted, and beats even the Earlingford women in the DIY department: he’s half Regency dandy, half MacGyver, and the mixture is quite compelling. The reader is relieved when he turns out to be a good guy, but in the beginning there’s a palpable possibility that he might not be one. Lady Earlingford’s fear that he might be a wicked seducer seems justified; especially as the author lays out his physical attractions in great detail, and Viola is clearly very impressed by them. Even Lady Earlingford is not impervious to his charms: ‘This young man,’ she says to herself, ‘is determined that we shall love him!’
The narrative positions FitzAymer not as a threatening figure, but a potentially threatening one, and it made me slightly revise my policy on bad boys. I’ve always had a strong dislike of ‘bad boy’ romantic heroes; my motto is that if the ‘bad boy’ is the most interesting character in a story, the ‘good boys’ are simply not written well enough. But FitzAymer made me think that the romantic hero doesn’t have to be bad – violent, sexually menacing, licentious, or what have you – in order to occupy the place of a ‘bad boy’ in a narrative. If a main character regards him with suspicion, and those suspicions are not explained away until the end, this is enough to create the tension that a ‘bad boy’ brings to the table by being bad. The problem with a really ‘bad’ bad boy is that the badness can’t be excused – at least not well enough to satisfy me as a reader.
The Shipwreck also illustrates another principle: that romance is at its most satisfying when the readers can be sure of the characters’ mutual affection, but the characters themselves are kept in uncertainty for as long as possible. The Shipwreck loses a lot of its momentum when the lovers declare their love, and their characters become less interesting when they spend the rest of the novel making pompous speeches of constancy and admiration.
The premise itself, though, would likely make a good historical romance, even now. Though I’m guessing the goings-on on the island would be of a rather different nature…
It’s surprising that I’ve never read anything by Sarah Harriet Burney before this, as she was the younger half-sister to one of my favourite novelists, Fanny Burney. I got myself the BiblioBazaar print-on-demand edition (ISBN: 9780559049200) of Tales of Fancy, which turned out to contain only The Shipwreck. The second part, Country Neighbours, is available as a free e-book, and I’ll try to overcome my dislike of e-books and read it next. The Shipwreck itself is also available as a free e-book, and I heartily recommend it!