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Classic 19th century novel of manners now available in English translation

Book Review: Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

Touted as perhaps the great Dutch novel of the nineteenth century, Louis Couperus' Eline Vere was published serially in 1889. In spite of its somewhat archaic prose style, it has been praised for the psychological insight of its characterization and its naturalistic presentation. It has been compared favorably with the work of such literary icons as Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. And while there are no doubt similarities in their work, such comparisons are no doubt a mite excessive.

Eline, the central figure in the novel certainly has something in common with Emma Bovary and what ultimately becomes her fate is much the kind of thing one would expect for a Zola heroine. It would seem obvious that Couperus was well acquainted with the work of these writers — and a good many other nineteenth century novelists as well. The concerns of his novel are the concerns of the zeitgeist. He is using the genre to describe the social concerns of the world he lives in. It is a novel of manners with the beginnings of some psychological overtones. The major difference between the Dutch author and the major nineteenth and early twentieth authors is that they do it more effectively.

Compare Couperus with writers like Edith Wharton and Henry James who also deal with similar themes and characters. There is a richness and depth to their work that is lacking in Eline Vere. They tend to deal with fewer characters and portray them in greater detail. Isabelle Archer in Portrait of a Lady and Lily Barth in The House of Mirth are good examples of this kind of depth. Although Eline Vere runs just short of six hundred pages, it is peopled with so many characters who remain mere names for so long that it takes nearly two hundred pages for the reader to be able to tell them apart.

There is a gaggle of young women: Frederique, Lili, Marie, Catoun, Ange, Leonoie. and of course Eline. For pages and pages they are little more than names with very little to distinguish the one from the others. They are all young and pretty. They come from well to do, but not necessarily wealthy families. They dress well. They take part in tableaux vivant, go to the opera, dance at balls, visit in the afternoons, and generally live lives of idle leisure. They flirt with members of a covey of young men, much their male counterparts and equally indistinguishable. There are a few young marrieds of varying degrees of wealth and happiness. There is even a divorcee and an old maid in the making.

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.

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