Sunday, 28 October 2012

In Defence of Eugenie

Since releasing the latest volume in my Swallowcliffe Hall series, Eugenie's Story, about a month ago, I have come to realise that, while the book is selling well on both sides of the Atlantic, readers in the US don't actually seem to like Eugenie very much - or at least, not as much as Polly, Grace and Isobel. Poor Eugenie! I feel guilty. After all, I dreamed her up and now she's baring her soul in public, only to be condemned as a superficial airhead on

It's true that Eugenie is superficial - at least to begin with. She is a product of her class and time, obsessed with herself, unaware of the feelings and lives of others, blind to the many injustices around her. I wanted to create a less straightforward narrator for this story, so that when she assessed a particular situation or judged a certain person, the reader might wonder what the real truth of the matter was. The gap between Eugenie's frequently high-flown language and the mundane reality of her life is sometimes touching, and often (to me, at least) comical. Upper-class girls of marriageable age in the Edwardian era were placed under such narrow constraints, their opportunities for expression so few, that many of them must have been frequently verging on the edge of hysteria, just like Eugenie. Her blunders and misapprehensions lead her into such trouble! Here she is, visiting a tenant cottage on the Swallowcliffe estate where the man of the house lies ill upstairs. She has brought some cast-off clothes with her:
I visit the Beamishes, with qualified success. Bearing the mourning gowns Miss Pratt has deemed beyond salvation, I knock on their front door for some minutes before Mrs Beamish eventually emerges, sleeves rolled up and hair falling down at the back. Apparently it’s wash day. Inside, the cottage is in chaos: there are children tumbling about all over the place and the baby is wailing. Mrs B takes me into the front room, where the furniture is now covered in dustsheets, but has to keep darting back to the kitchen as the copper’s boiling over. I’m not offered any refreshment, and when I unpack the parcel to show her the mourning gowns, she starts to cry. It soon becomes clear these are not tears of gratitude, as I initially assumed. One of the children sidles into the room to stare at me but runs away when I attempt to engage it in conversation. Feeling a little de trop, I take my leave as soon as decently possible, promising to return another day; Mrs Beamish is clearly relieved. Despite the best of intentions, I fear I lack the common touch.
Who else but Eugenie would consider mourning gowns a suitable gift when calling on the sick? I'm sorry, but she just makes me laugh. And that, I suppose, is the nub of the matter. If you don't find Eugenie at all funny, she must be hard to like. She's not particularly nice to her long-suffering maid, for example, constantly under-estimating and patronizing poor Bessie:
The transformation of Bessie has begun! Part of the problem, I realized with one of those flashes of inspiration that seem to come so regularly to me now, is her name. ‘Bessie’ sounds positively bovine, and her surname is Cheesman which presents further difficulties. I can’t go about calling ‘Cheesman!’ – it would be too ridiculous and has connotations with trade. I have decided to call her Beth, which is so much more refined. The name makes me think of Little Women, one of my favourite books, and while Bessie (as was) may never reach the fictional Beth’s heights of saintliness, she has now been leant a certain dignity.
If nothing in that passage makes you smile, at least inwardly, then Eugenie must seem very unlikeable. Books with unlikeable main characters can be hard work, yet they can also make a reader question the narrative and look for the truth between the lines. (Jane Harris's Gillespie and Me, for example, is quite brilliantly unsettling.) Granted, Eugenie is a snob, obsessed with herself and blind to the injustices around her, yet I've also tried to show that she's brave, passionate, kind-hearted in her own way, and funny. If anyone who's read the story would like to tell me what they think of her, I'd be fascinated.
PS - And look at her tiny waist! How could anyone be charitable in a corset laced so tightly? 


  1. This makes me think of Jane Austen's "Emma" who is foolish and spoilt and that's a large part of why that book is such a great read!

  2. Yes, absolutely! You find yourself waiting for Emma to get her come-uppance, while still retaining some affection for her... (although I do find Emma rather irritating - my least favourite Jane Austen novel, I think).

  3. Wow, you've really got the language down! Well done! I found the mourning gowns gift funny, but I'm really into this sort of story, so maybe I know the gaffe and it's just that other aren't catching it?

    1. Thanks, Cassandra!Yes, I think you're right - there are all sorts of subtle expectations and frames of reference we all have as readers that inform our reactions to any particular story. I'm just hoping someone who does 'get' Eugenie will defend her on Amazon. Or maybe I'll have to accept that I haven't succeeded with this one? Maybe I haven't managed to transmit the idea of Eugenie I have in my head on to the page? Who knows...