This book has many of the elements of a classic Victorian novel. There's the long-suffering, nearly saintly invalid. There's a helpless widow, and there's a buffoonish curate. And most importantly, there's an independent-leaning woman whose spunk and desire for knowledge make her foolish. In Yonge's novel we enter the world of Rachel Curtis, the so-named "clever woman," who loves to read the latest tract on educational theory, and hopes some day to put them into practice for the benefit of local youth. But Rachel is also a provincial daughter, and there are few opportunities for an independent and knowledge-hungry woman in the provinces in 1865. Rachel disagrees strongly with women acting flighty and foolish for the benefit of suitors or the clergy. What Rachel values is substance, but she finds little of it in her provincial surroundings. Those around Rachel see her as arrogant and foolish. When Rachel is finally given the opportunity to put her theories into practice, the consequences are more devastating and far-reaching than anyone could have imagined. As I began this book I presumed it was a comedy of manners, but as I got deeper in, I discovered that the book is more than that. The themes are much darker, and consequences more surprising than that. Yonge has drawn some compelling characters in this novel, but there were parts of this story that fell flat. Rachel's mother is the fussiest of Victorian ladies, and we see just how limited that lives of Victorian women like Rachel were. Rachel's ultimate fate will likely not surprise most modern readers, but getting there takes twists and turns I certainly wasn't expecting.
Charlotte M. Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family (Penguin, orig. pub. 1865, 1986) ISBN: 014016149X
Category- Virago Modern Classics 1/9, 2/81