A Lady of Quality
Being a most curious, hitherto unknown history,
as related by Mr. Isaac Bickerstaff but not presented
to the World of Fashion through the pages of The Tatler,
and now for the first time written down
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson

Frederick Warne & Co.: London, 1896
368 pages

Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1896

February 2012

Evolution of a female prodigy

Uncivilised and almost savage as her girlish life was, and unregulated by any outward training as was her mind, there were none who came in contact with her who could be blind to a certain strong, clear wit, and unconquerableness of purpose, for which she was remarkable. She ever knew full well what she desired to gain or to avoid, and once having fixed her mind upon any object, she showed an adroitness and brilliancy of resource, a control of herself and others, the which there was no circumventing. She never made a blunder because she could not control the expression of her emotions; and when she gave way to a passion, 'twas because she chose to do so, having naught to lose ...

Readers whose acquaintance with the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett is limited to Little Lord Fauntleroy or The Secret Garden may well be startled by an encounter with Clorinda Wildairs, the heroine of Burnett's A Lady of Quality. Although known today primarily for her children's books, Burnett also wrote novels for an adult audience, and A Lady of Quality is emphatically one of the latter. (Even in this more jaded era, it's hard to imagine a children's book that opens with a dying mother trying to kill her newborn, or one that features a six-year-old attacking her father with a riding crop.)

A Lady of Quality, a historical novel set during the reign of Queen Anne, gives us a protagonist almost comically at the opposite end of the spectrum from Cedric, the sunny-tempered seven-year-old who charms (or annoys) readers of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Clorinda Wildairs is a strong girl, and then a strong woman, in every sense of the term — physically powerful, mentally acute, and possessed of an indomitable will. (Indeed, the adult Clorinda could easily be comic-book super-heroine Wonder Woman transplanted into the early 18th Century, albeit without a Magic Lasso.)

Unlike many of Burnett's child protagonists, Clorinda is, at least at the outset, not a painfully noble character — or even a nice one. She drinks, she swears, she bullies everyone around her, and she gives free rein to her ferocious temper and unswerving determination to have her own way. Fortunately for Clorinda, she is a beauty as well as a hellion; otherwise, as the narrator admits, Clorinda's brutal father "would have broken every bone in her carcass without a scruple or a qualm" rather than submitting to her infant tyranny and "shrewish will".

A Lady of Quality follows this fearsome female prodigy as she grows to adulthood and faces the challenges of love, marriage, betrayal, and danger, as well as the demands, both great and small, of the fashionable society in which she moves. Although her demeanor is far from that of the typical romantic heroine, Clorinda manages to win and keep our sympathy; we want her to succeed, even when she engages in acts her fictional contemporaries — or, indeed, the original readers of the novel — might have viewed as crimes.

Despite her deviation from the traditional romantic-heroine pattern, Clorinda Wildairs is no Becky Sharp. Clorinda speaks truthfully when she says, "I have no virtues — where should I have got them from, forsooth, in a life like mine? I mean I have no women's virtues; but I have one that is sometimes — not always — a man's. 'Tis that I am not a coward and a trickster, and keep my word when 'tis given." In this sense, as well as in some others, Clorinda is a feminist heroine, a woman ahead of her time.

Interestingly, although we do not discover this in full until the novel's end, Clorinda's strength of will is echoed in her pale, pious and timid sister Anne. The plain and unloved Anne, who worships her resplendent sibling, is definitely not a feminist heroine. Still, when fate calls on her to play a small but critical role in the great crisis of Clorinda's life, Anne shows that, despite being cast in a more traditional mold, she too has a core of steel and a capacity for self-control that rivals her sister's.

A Lady of Quality is also ahead of its time in that there is more evolution than revolution in Clorinda's transition from untrammeled hellion to unparalleled heroine. While the redeeming power of romantic love does play a part in Clorinda's metamorphosis, and although she weathers a crisis that we might expect to constitute a turning point in the development of her character, there is a sense of inevitability in Clorinda's progression along the upward way. This is not a tale of fall, repentance and redemption, nor even a tale of self-recognition and reform, but rather a story in which the protagonist is improved — even perfected — almost in spite of herself. This may constitute a novelistic flaw, or a moral one, or both, but it makes for an interesting departure from the 19th-Century norm.

Of course, despite its differences from Burnett's children's books and from some of the tropes of other 19th-Century novels, A Lady of Quality still bears the stamp of both its author and its era. Sexual encounters are kept firmly offstage and are hinted at rather than described and, while it's certainly no Little Lord Fauntleroy, the novel's level of sentimentality will be too much for some tastes. Even so, readers who have experienced Burnett only as a producer of charming — or cloying — juvenilia may be refreshingly surprised by the redoubtable Clorinda Wildairs.


© 2012 Jennifer Monroe Franson

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