Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Book: An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan


Time on to-read: A year or more, like all Morgan’s books

Reason for not picking up: That cover’s pretty bad. No- mostly it was that I knew this wasn’t the first one of his I wanted to try, if I ever did.

Reason for finally picking up: They had this one, not the one I wanted, at the library! Alas! Sometimes it is that prosaic.

Verdict: Same as the last one. Eh. I could have left it in the middle of the pile- it was doing a good job holding up some stuff that deserved to be pulled out more.

This is my third Morgan. Two main things to say, really: First, I liked it better than either of the others by him I’ve read so far, and second, I think I understand why so many people seem to have a problem with him.

This book centers on a thirty-year old single woman named Lydia Templeton. Of course, this being a novel that models itself after Regency social comedies, that “single” status matters rather a lot to the plot. Ten years ago, Lydia rejected Lewis Durrant, eligible local bachelor, for a mixed bag of reasons that become clearer over the course of the novel- a major one being the fact that, at an adventurous, intelligent, defiant twenty, with life just opening up before you, marrying the man who lives next door that it makes a lot of sense for you to marry is pretty low on the list of things that one actually wants to do. In any case, it’s ten years later, and Lydia is enjoying a comfortable life with her scholar father. But then her old friend asks her to go to Bath to be a companion to a young heiress who is making her debut into society and choosing between various men. Lydia’s role as a “wise old woman” when she is way too young for the job commences, and obviously, many, many complications follow for her and everyone around her.

I thought this novel was far superior to the previous efforts I’ve read by him. Unlike in A Little Folly, Morgan did a much better job of creating naturalistic dialogue, actions, and thoughts for the characters that sounded as if they might be things that people would actually say rather than say only in a staged play of the time period. In part because of this, also unlike many of characters in Folly, I had absolutely no trouble attaching to the main characters or caring about their stories getting proper resolution. Morgan did a great job with creating a spirited, intelligent heroine with obvious flaws, whose flaws become even more obvious over the course of the novel, but who nonetheless the reader wants to stick with until she learns and grows from them. (I really thought Morgan did a great job of showing, in particular, Durrant’s perspective without ever actually letting us inside his head.)

Morgan is also proved again that he is capable of turning memorable and witty phrases throughout the novel- this time I was even surprised into laughter more than once while reading him- first time that’s happened. Moreover, his narrative voice, that marvelously magisterial third person omniscient thing he’s great at imitating, continues the best part of the whole thing. I was just sad there was far less of it this novel. I would have been glad for the book to be several chapters longer if we just inserted more of that and, honestly, even amplified it so that it became Thackeray-esque, long chapters of zoomed-out commentary on the proceedings. In addition, he has a great feeling for the rhythm of the plot and when it should begin to wind up or wind down and just how much. He’s done the work, he’s spent the time here, and it shows.

But, and this is going to be a fairly big caveat, I also maybe totally get some reasons why people ultimately don’t love his work, even if they recognize his undeniable talent. I felt it myself at several points and nearly gave up reading at one point it pissed me off so much.

First of all, I’m increasingly suspicious Morgan holds himself just a little bit above the company of some of his readers. He is totally fine with demonstrating how well he understands his genre, but also makes it clear that there’s some nonsense about it he will not be participating in, thank you! For example, this is now the second straight book he’s had his characters rant for him about how silly the Regency-era slang is- he writes a paragraph of it to prove he knows it and can do it, and then proceeds to have his characters refuse to utter it for the rest of the book, even where it might be appropriate for his characters. Because throwing away a legitimate means of characterizing someone and amusing your readers because you feel you’re too good for it seems like the right plan? This is a relatively minor example, but there are bigger ones, such as when he has his main character essentially dismiss the entirety of the Regency romance genre as just too unbearably silly for words. I think he makes fun of his audience a little bit, and not in a loving way where he’s one of them. It seems smug, like he’s just analyzed readers of the genre and cleverly figured out how to be a success- while of course also scolding readers who like Regency-set novels for inferior reasons, like rooooooooooomance. (*sigh implied here*)

Second, and this is a bigger problem, Morgan’s novels have problems on a purely structural level. I think he wants to avoid writing straight updates of the Austen novels, so he mixes things up and puts in Heyer elements in an attempt to create something new. But what often ends up happening is that you end up feeling like you’ve started to read one novel, wandered off into the borders of another one for a side adventure in the middle, and finally ended up in a third that doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense given the first two novels it seemed like we were in. At the beginning we were reading Pride and Prejudice mixed with Persuasion, where Lizzie has become old and made some mistakes along the way. Then it became one of Heyer’s Bath romances about ladies past their prime mixed with Emma, where it suddenly became evident that Lydia was more Emma Woodhouse than Lizzie, and was definitely no part of Anne Elliott. That could have been a brilliant twist, and for a hot second it really was- but it turned out that while Morgan made that brilliant shift for his heroine, he left everyone else in the novel behind in the Bath novel or suddenly turned them into Emma characters to make the plot work at the end, when they had been living as P&P or S&S characters, or were completely Heyer characters and had no connection to Austen whatever. One of the perfectly blameless male suitors suddenly was forced to become Mr. Elton- I felt almost bad for the character to deserve such a fate! Similarly, a perfectly awful Willoughby/Heyer silly melancholic-poetic character suddenly became the benign, likeable version of this guy- which would have been a great transformation to watch slowly, over the course of the novel, but was infuriating to see happen off-stage, over the course of a few pages, with no previous sign that it might happen having been given. By the time you get to the conclusion, we’ve got Emma Woodhouse marrying Mr. Darcy and wondering what the hell these two characters are doing in the same room and when they met to begin with. While I appreciate that there are a lot of great raw ingredients to work with, I really think that Morgan needed to decide exactly which novel he was writing and stick with it from beginning to end, rather than bouncing around until his characters and his plot didn’t ring true any longer.

Finally, basically what this ends up meaning is that Morgan often sets expectations for himself really high at the beginning of the novel- people start to judge it using, if not higher, than at least different standards (this ain’t no run-of-the-mill Regency romance- you told us so yourself!), and unfortunately, his writing is uneven enough that it sets the reader up for disappointment. I said he was capable of great, witty lines. He is- but only at scattered points throughout the novel- there are definitely some memorably clunky parts, some characterization that doesn’t quite work, some dialogue that feels off, some plot that doesn’t make organic sense. Oh, none of it is quite terrible, but it’s just off enough to make you feel disappointed, because he got you to expecting more of him, because he’s shown he’s sometimes capable of great quality writing- he turned on the part of your brain that’s into that- and then it abruptly goes away. It may come back again, but it leaves again enough times for you to register the drop in quality.

I would still like to read Indiscretion but I think I will have to make sure my expectations are adjusted and decline to get too excited when his narrative powers kick into their highest gear- I wonder whether he will be able to sustain the quality, or to refrain from looking down his nose at what he’s writing for long enough to improve some of the problems with it. We’ll see- if nothing else, I still have to say it remains the best of the Austen homages I’ve read- a low bar, but something nonetheless.