Helen by Maria Edgeworth

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Helen by Maria Edgeworth

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Katie Pullen
Reviewed by Katie Pullen
Summary: After her uncle's death, Helen moves into the home of her best friend Cecilia and becomes caught up in Cecilia's web of white lies, which leaves her hopes for marriage possibly ruined. A good read that although frustratingly slow to start eventually reveals a great plot, albeit slightly different from the novel of courtship you may be expecting.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Sort of Books
ISBN: 978-0956003898

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Sweet-tempered Helen Stanley has been left penniless and homeless after her uncle's death. Soon her best friend Cecilia writes to encourage Helen to come and live with her and her new husband, General Clarendon at Clarendon Park. Helen soon finds herself settled in to Clarendon Park and reacquaints herself with Cecilia and more importantly with Cecilia's mother, Lady Davenant, who considers Helen a daughter, and even prefers her to Cecilia.

As the days pass there are many visitors to Clarendon Park and Helen soon finds herself amongst all sorts of company, becoming particularly drawn to Granville Beauclerc, but Cecilia has told her he is already engaged to be married. This is just the start of Cecilia's white lies, which start to spin out of control, involving Helen to such an extent that her hopes of marriage look set to be ruined.

I immediately liked Helen who seems to be quite a sensible young woman, sweet and kind, and determined to see the good in everyone. She is very accepting of her place in life, especially as she was brought up to be an heiress and now has nothing as a result of her uncle's gambling. She is frustratingly naive though as she believes whatever people tell her and is very keen to be liked by everyone. She also values her relationships with Cecilia and Lady Davenant to such a degree that she allows herself to be manipulated by Cecilia to avoid upsetting her and potentially affecting Lady Davenant's precarious health. She doesn't question Cecilia telling her Beauclerc is already engaged, little knowing Cecilia has only told her this to make her more relaxed in his company. She does show a bit of backbone at times though thank heavens, mostly due to her close relationship with Lady Davenant whom she goes to for advice and direction.

Cecilia is as you might have guessed is rather silly, incredibly selfish and a huge coward for the majority of the novel, and I could completely understand why her mother doesn't like her very much and even warns Helen about the black spot on her character. So it is interesting that Edgeworth has used perhaps the least likeable character to drive her plot forwards through her unforgivable bad judgement and habit of telling lies.

The plot itself is excellent, but unfortunately it takes an age to get going. The novel is split into three volumes but for all of volume one and some of volume two our characters stagnate at Clarendon Park and barely leave its walls. Yes there are plenty of guests, including the publisher Horace Churchill, vile Katrine Hawksby, her sister Louisa Castlefort, and Helen's potential love interest Granville Beauclerc, plus little episodes such as a hawking party, but these unfortunately do nothing to move the story onwards.

Instead Edgeworth presents many drawing-room scenes and the novel for a time becomes one of conversations and opinions as numerous topics are discussed at length. Helen gets rather lost in this part of the novel, as she does not contribute much to these passages preferring to watch from the sidelines. Her potential relationship with Beauclerc also gets put on the back burner for some time. The introduction to the novel tells us that all these conversations are intended to prepare us for the drama of the second half, and looking back this is definitely the case, but for me they were a struggle to get through and at times I wanted to abandon the book altogether as there was no sign of progression.

So I was relieved that all that effort hadn't been for nothing when the plot finally got going. At last Helen gets to take centre stage as she becomes embroiled in Cecilia's deceits concerning a former lover, and our characters even get to move beyond Clarendon Park's walls to London. But it is Cecilia's habitual lies that move the action on and fill the last third with some much-needed and satisfying drama, full of twists and turns for us to really get our teeth into.

In the main Edgeworth's prose is easy to read, apart from the odd passage where the characters seem to talk in riddles and the many frustrating chapters where nothing happens. I was quite impressed by the amount of dialogue for a novel of this period as it certainly outweighs the use of descriptive passages, which I expected more of. It's a very accessible and at times intriguing read, but you definitely have to invest some time and energy to get through the first volume, so I would only recommend if you're feeling like a challenge and don't mind being made to wait for the drama.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further Reading Suggestion: If you like the sound of this book you may also enjoy The French Dancer's Bastard by Emma Tennant or for a biography of one of Maria Edgeworth's successors try Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon.

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Buy Helen by Maria Edgeworth at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Helen by Maria Edgeworth at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Helen by Maria Edgeworth at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Helen by Maria Edgeworth at Amazon.com.


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