How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life: A Novel, by Mameve Medwed
This is a mildly amusing novel about a neurotic woman whose unhappy and humdrum life is turned around by a trip to Antique Roadshows where she finds herself on television with an immensely valuable chamber pot that had belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and was used as a writing implement while the poetess was writing works like “Sonnets From The Portuguese.” By and large the book’s tone is more than a little bit jocular and the work is not the sort of novel to take seriously, but if you are looking for romantic fluff that involves a somewhat self-aware but very insecure and clueless female narrator and protagonist, this work certainly has much to offer for it. That is, if you can look with an indulgent eye at the atrocious morality that can be found in this work, which includes some casual fornication and adultery, making light of marriage, and some adroitly handled but still awkward sex scenes, as well as romantic advice being dispensed after the grave from lesbian lovers trying to set their children from their past marriages together. This is not necessarily the most appealing sort of work to everyone, but there is certainly an audience for this sort of romantic novel.
This novel is about 250 pages and it is the sort of book that is likely to win awards in the contemporary fictional climate. On the one hand, it is a clear work of self-conscious literary fiction, in that it is a fiction that is in part about writers–some of them good (Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and some of them bad, like Ned, the true love of the author who is cast aside in pain and anguish when he uses her confessions to craft a terrible nonfiction novel about his family and community. There is a sustained note of irony throughout this book, not least in the fact that the author may very well be writing about her own relatives and neighbors, and thus is sending up the sort of parochial elitism that it represents itself, thus immunizing itself from the sort of criticism it is likely to receive from those who might be aware of people who actually behave not unlike this. While my own feelings about the plot itself and the sometimes loathsome characters within it is decidedly mixed, at the same time I did leave with an appreciation of the author’s skill, if not necessarily her character.
How much insider knowledge does it take to appreciate a work like this? By and large, the book is one that offers the reader a perspective of the sort of authorial intervention it takes to get certain people into happy relationships, including apologies and a recognition of the importance of trust. The narrator’s appalling lack of insight in terms of dealing with others leads to a lot of complications, especially because the fame and monetary value of the chamberpot leads to a legal fight and to the development of a sort of fame. That the author is a Harvard dropout from one of those elite Waspish families that tends to view Ivy League education as a birthright suggests as well a certain decadence in the elites of the Northeast, which also makes this book a bit less enjoyable to read to someone whose thoughts about such elites are deeply complicated. This is a book written by and for contemporary audiences who want a lot of gossipy and fluffy plots that send up high culture but that depend on a certain degree of knowledge and interest with the insular ways of corrupt elites in a clear state of decline, trying to find themselves because they lack the ability and ambition to do something meaningful in a conventional sense.