Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Book Review: The Wanderer
The Wanderer was Fanny Burney’s last novel, and, in my opinion, her magnum opus. It was published in 1814, years after her third novel, Camilla (1796). She had started it soon after Camilla, but it was set aside when she turned to plays in order to earn more money to support her family.
There are so many superlatives I could apply to The Wanderer. It blew me away. Fanny Burney (or Madame d’Arblay, her married name) had an incredible mind. My edition was 873 pages long, 5 volumes and 92 chapters. Throughout that thick pile of pages, Mme d’Arblay sustained a mystery -- the identity and story of the Wanderer -- that kept me worried and intrigued to the last chapter.
It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving anything away; perhaps the greatest pleasure of this novel is knowing nothing at all about it, being surprised and breathless at every turn. That’s the way I read it -- and I loved it.
But I should share something to whet your appetite: The Wanderer cannot give her name to anyone; we immediately apprehend she is in danger when, in the first scene, she boards a boat fleeing to England from France during the French Revolution. The alternate title of the book is Female Difficulties, and that is likewise a very apt title. Because she is alone, she must support herself once in England. For a female, that was next to impossible -- very few careers were available, and those that were either did not earn much or were not in high demand. And any working woman was looked down upon.
Fanny Burney d’Arblay supported a cast of maybe forty realistic characters, from all spectrums of society -- and I do mean all. The Wanderer ended up in the city, in the country, in the seaside town; with the nobility, with the gentility, with the working class, with the peasantry. The scope of this novel was vast; the author had an outstanding grasp on that part of the world in 1793-94. Running throughout the story was a political commentary that was ahead of her time.
It was partly this political commentary that caused the 1814 reviewers to give The Wanderer poor reviews. Yes, that’s right; not everyone thought it was Fanny d’Arblay’s magnum opus like I do. Her comments on society -- for instance, the oppression of the poor and of women -- touched too many nerves for it to be popular. I would not say she was a feminist (at least not like Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women) or a radical, because she was not extreme; she excused no one, portraying equally the respective flaws of rich and poor.
Hmm … there are so many things to say about this incredible work, but I must limit myself. It includes some great theological discussions. Its many adventures sure make it appealing, though back then some dismissed it as “improbable.” Perhaps because it was not a Gothic novel people thought it should be as straightforward as Mme d’Arblay’s other fiction and as Jane Austen’s. After 1814, The Wanderer was not republished until 1988.
While I feel sorry for the generations that missed it, I’m so glad it’s available today. It’s joined my list of favorites. In one of my posts about Evelina, Fanny Burney’s first book, I had stated that Jane Austen was the superior artist but Fanny Burney had some talents that went beyond her; The Wanderer shows its artist fully matured, at the top of her game, and -- while I can’t say she leaves Jane Austen behind, because when it comes down to it, comparing writers can be like comparing apples to oranges -- I see her now for what she was: a genius.