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A Simple Story isn't a very good title in my opinion. Why title your story a simple story when readers can read tales of adventure or about specific characters? To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the book. This review will aim to be spoiler free.
This is the first book that I have ever read from Elizabeth Inchbald. Judging by her Wikipedia page, she appears to have been quite a feisty woman. She was also an actor. She's written several plays but only wrote two novels. Her writing style reminds me of the classic authors like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
A Simple Story
The novel was published in 1791. It's a novel that I've never heard of before until today. It's split into two parts. The first half focuses on Miss Milner and the second half focuses on her daughter, Lady Matilda. What I find very peculiar is that Miss Milner's first name is never mentioned anywhere in the story. So it gives me the impression that everyone is polite and highly classy.
The writing is rich in detail and refined words, but at times I found it hard to follow and get into. There is little world-building in my opinion and the backstories are briefly outlined. At times I felt that this story seems promising and at other times, I thought this was a total bore.
However, the characters are well written and kept me invested in the story. The themes of feminism, forbidden love, and parental love and breaking the harsh cycles of poverty and religion. All views and themes that can still be held relevant to this day.
On the surface, it seems it's going to build up as a Gothic romance novel, but deep within it becomes a story of a mother and daughter who were born before their time. The novel opens with the death of Miss Milner's father who wished for his daughter to be left in the care of devout catholic Dorriforth.
The delivery is confusing. Miss Milner falls in love with her guardian, Dorriforth, who is a priest. This understandably causes great scandal as in her time, as women weren't expected to reveal their romantic passions and it doesn't help that the man she is in love with is a priest.
Miss Milner has a wild heart and flirts, but her daughter, Lady Matilda, sadly also gets punished for her mother's actions. But the contrast between mother and daughter are so great that it leaves a poignant atmosphere.
I feel like Elizabeth Inchbald is trying to convey a message or a moral to this story. In my opinion, the book comes off as quite preachy compared to other older books. I feel that the author has injected a lot of her beliefs and personality traits into Miss Milner. Even though women did not have a lot of power at that time, she used her sexuality and also her whit to have power over men.
I really like the characters. I like Miss Milner the most. I did hope that she could have a better life but I had a feeling within the first few chapters that she was doomed. Her upbringing appears lavish for her time, but she still feels realistic. She breaks vows to break the social norms and make her own. Her daughter is the polar opposite and obeys the norms. But there is another message here which I think that the author is trying to convey here. I think the author is trying to tell the readers to do both: be good, but feel free to break the rules once in a while.
Miss Milner stands out strongly and has a unique voice of her own. She reminds me of Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette. I've found at times with some of the male characters, I struggled to find a unique voice to them. They're well written but it's only Dorriforth/Lord Elmwood that really makes an impact on the story for me. Rushbrook felt superficial.
“For the hackneyed art of lying without injury to anyone, Rushbrook, to his shame, was proficient.”
This quote is one of the most known quotes in the entire novel. Mainly because it's one of the only quotes of the novel available on most sites. However, Amazon Kindle has this book in their e-book store for free so there might be many more quotes that you might find more interesting. I think this quote alone says a lot about Rushbrook's character.
"When Miss Milner arrived at Bath, she thought it the most altered place she had ever seen—she was mistaken—it was herself that was changed."
I think it's a really good chapter opener because it gives us such a big statement about Miss Milner and how she views the world. In the beginning, her life seems grand. She's loved and she's spoilt, but then when we get to the surface of her character, we find things aren't as good as they seem.
"Yet though Miss Milner at those times was softened into melancholy, she by no means appeared unhappy."
The word melancholy is used several times in the book, and when it is used, it stands out a lot because that's how the novel feels overall in my opinion.
I was entertained by the Gothic themes in this, but I found it quite hard to be fully invested in the story as there were many melodramatic scenes that put me off. One example would include Lord Elmwood's treatment of his daughter. However, I found the characters very compelling and found myself surprised at the use of the forbidden love trope.
I believe that fans of classics like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens would thoroughly enjoy this book. There are no heroes or villains in this novel: just regular people bought up in the consequences of a romantic scandal.
Would I recommend it? I think it's worth having a look at, but I can see why this has been overlooked for many years. I recommend getting it on Amazon as a free download. I also recommend Librivox's audio reading. If you'd rather have a paperback, Oxford University Press has it. (ISBN 019283598X)