The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke. In 1895 in rural Ireland, a young woman named Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband. She had been sick with bronchitis for the previous week, and her family had apparently become convinced that the "real" Bridget had been stolen away by fairies, leaving a sickly changeling in her wake. In fact, the night before her death, her husband was assisted by her father, her aunt, and various cousins of hers to perform a magical ritual/exorcism that verged on torture. But the question of how much any of them really believed in fairies remains open. Was her murder simply domestic violence that used the legends as a cover-up? Was it an unfortunate accident? Something in-between?
All of this gains resonance from the fact that the story of Bridget's death hit newspapers at the same time as Parliament was debating Irish Home Rule and Oscar Wilde was undergoing trial for homosexuality. The idea of Irish peasants (not that any of the people involved truly qualified as such... ) blindly following fairy legend to the point of murdering a pretty young woman provided ammunition for all sorts of political goals.
This true event makes for an absolutely fabulous story. Unfortunately Bourke is not the person to tell it. She frequently jumps around in time, making it hard to understand the chronological order of events. She positions Michael Kennedy as the protagonist, though God alone knows why – he's one of Bridget's cousins, but wasn't even there on the day she was killed, doesn't give particularly elaborate or compelling testimony in the trial afterward, and has nothing to distinguish him from the rest of the family. She makes the thesis of her book the idea that Bridget was killed out of jealousy, but doesn't even try to show that this jealousy actually existed; she simply treats it as a foregone conclusion. And, I mean, Bridget was better-educated and wealthier than the rest of her family! I am willing to believe this was an important factor in her death! I am totally the choir, and yet Bourke wouldn't preach a single piece of evidence to me.
Ugh, I have such mixed feelings about this book. There's a lot of interesting details in it, from the history of fairy legends to the contemporary Romantic tradition of writing poems and collecting folklore, to the case itself, but it's all so muddled and incompetently done. There's a kernel of good here, but it's coated by a lot of poor writing.
Marriage by Susan Ferrier. Ferrier – at least according the back of the paperback I read – is considered the "Scottish Jane Austen". And based on this book, I have to agree. We've got romance among the lower gentry, country folk coming to the city (in this case Bath), and, most prominent of all, lots of wry observations about other people's foibles. It's not exactly like Austen (among other things, there's a fairly heavy Christian tone to the narrative, though it never gets so moralizing as to ruin the fun for me), but it's close enough that if you like the one, you'll probably like the other.
So, the plot! Juliana is the daughter of an earl and is engaged to a (old, annoying, but rich) Duke. However, she is in love with a handsome soldier boy, Henry, so they elope. Henry is promptly fired from his position and Juliana disinherited by her father for such behavior, so they are forced to go live with Henry's family in rural Scotland. Since they're both shallow, spoiled, dumb young things, this is basically a fate worse than death, especially given Henry's collection of meddling spinster aunts. Juliana may have promised that she was willing to live in a desert to be with Henry, but it turns out that was because she didn't know what a desert is. Eventually Juliana gives birth to twin girls; she and Henry keep one, and the other is given to Henry's childless sister-in-law, a woman who stands out by being the only person with any sense and good-heartedness in the whole book.
All of this takes up the first third or so of the book. Afterwards we have a timeskip of sixteen years, allowing the twins to grow up. Juliana has managed to make it back into society, where she is a center of fashion. She's raised "her" twin, Adelaide, to be charming and to value marrying rich above all else – she doesn't want to see her daughter repeating her own mistake! The other twin, Mary, is well-read, charitable, humble, and has all the generic goody-two-shoes traits you might imagine, though she's a little too genuinely nice for me to ever resent her for this. The plot begins when Mary is sent off to Bath to meet her mother and sister for the first time in her life. People fall in love, marriages are made (not necessarily the same as the ones in love), and a multitude of ridiculous secondary characters march in and out of the narrative. My personal favorite was Doctor Redgill, a man so obsessed with food that he considers the only 'good marriage' to be one that comes with a French cook.
It was a fun book, but I have to complain about the edition I read (which I picked up for free from a box on the street, so I suppose I can't really grumble too much): Oxford University's "World's Classic" edition from 1986. It's stuffed full of footnotes: do you need what "backgammon" is explained to you? how about the phrase "you shouldn't game" (as in gamble)? And of course it is vitally important that a common phrase like 'it's an ill wind that blows no good' should come with a citation for its earliest appearance in print. On the other hand, an entire paragraph in French doesn't need a translation, silly! Doesn't everyone speak French? The editors are absolutely desperate to find allusions to other pieces of literature; I'm sure not every single time a character is described as "pale" it's a quote from Bryon. I literally can't imagine who these footnotes are intended for, and yet someone spent so much time assembling them, coming up with 4-5 per page. It's... funny? sad? irritating? Well, it's certainly memorable.
I enjoyed the book, though I might recommend acquiring a different edition.
Mount TBR update: Jumping up by 2 to hit 17!
What are you currently reading?
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A novel set in late 1700s Bristol about a female boxer. It's so much fun!
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