Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Jenny Wren

This is a book about trying to live within the strictures of Victorian sociability when one does not fit neatly into any of the categories. Jenny Rendall's father married down, his wife Louisa was never quite able to adapt to middle class rules of behavior. Sidney Rendall was able to educate his daughters in social graces, and Jenny, in particular, takes to the demands and graces of middle-class life. Sidney's death creates a crisis for the family. To earn money Louisa and her daughters attempt to start a boarding house. The work and the clientele are shocks to Jenny's delicate sensibilities. She finds herself regularly embarrassed by Louisa, but disquieted by her embarrassment. When Jenny meets the heir to the local manor her shame leads her to adopt a fake persona, becoming the upscale Jenny Wren.

A novel about class and manners, the book presents Jenny as the parvenu. She is the woman who has been introduced to the sensibilities of the upper classes, but who can't materially sustain them. Jenny has acquired enough of the sensory delicacies of the upper classes to feel acutely upset at her situation, but she lacks the resources of the upper class that would prevent her problems. Louisa retains enough of her lower-class orientation to enjoy more visceral pleasures, but not enough to avoid being horrified by her sister the servant and her suitor/moneylender Mr. Grimshaw. The novel roils in intellectual and emotional discomfort. Everyone is discontented. Weeding through that discomfort takes a great deal out of each of the characters. Though the book is set in the early 20th century, it had a very 19th century feel to me.

E.H. Young, Jenny Wren (orig. 1932) ISBN: 0140161082

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