Of course there are some elders as well. Together they provide a glimpse into the narrow upper middle class social scene in The Hague in the late nineteenth century. It is the kind of thing a reader has come to expect from the typical novel of manners of the period. Not until the reader gets well into the book do these characters ever become differentiated as individuals. It is only when they do that the novel comes to life.
The central plot is the story of the eponymous Eline Vere. She is a romantic, who in many respects could have been modeled on Marianne Dashwood or Emma Bovary. From her first introduction, we see her enthralled by the romances of Ouida. We see her enchanted by a Gounod opera. We watch her talk herself into a passion for a romantic baritone as she mistakes the man for the parts he sings. And then we are shown how her fantasies and passions ruin her life. Her story could be the stuff of tragedy, in Couperus hands, however, it is the stuff of melodrama. Not that melodrama is necessarily a bad thing, but here it comes much too close to soap opera to be really satisfying.
Several other more or less conventional romances are intertwined with Eline's story. Like so many of the novels of the period, this is a book that focuses on getting young people married. There is no question but that marriage is the norm, and failure to conform to that norm leaves one at best a burden, at worst a pariah. Even a marriage of incompatible people, like that of Eline's sister Betsy is better than no marriage at all. To be unmarried and dependent on others is perhaps the worst possible situation for a young woman in the world described by Couperus.
When Eline Vere finally hits its stride, it is not without interest. It certainly makes clear that Dutch society at the end of the century was not much different from the rest of Europe. With minor variations of time and place, the social milieu Couperus describes is the social milieu of novelists from Jane Austen and George Eliot to Henry James and William Dean Howells. While the book is not uninteresting, what it does best, is remind the reader just how great these other novelists were.