A Lady of Quality

Written by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Review by Sally Zigmond

Two of my all-time favourite books when I was a child were The Secret Garden (1911) and A Little Princess (1905). Even now, I still re-read and enjoy them. So it was a surprise to learn that the author’s earlier novels were adult historical fiction.

A Lady of Quality was published in 1896 and became the second highest-selling novel in the U.S that year.

It is 1690, and another baby girl is born to Sir Jeoffrey Wildairs. Undismayed at the news of his wife’s death in childbirth, he packs the infant off to a remote wing of his stately home, where her two elder sisters live and has nothing whatsoever to do with them.

Unlike her plain, obedient sisters, Clorinda Wildairs becomes beautiful and highly intelligent, masterful and arrogant. When she comes of age, she changes overnight into an elegant temptress and naturally every man she meets falls in love with her. The novel eventually becomes an unlikely historical romance with murder at its heart.

It was interesting to see the development of a writer, but I disliked all the main characters. The happy, slushy ending, whilst fitting for the age in which it was written, left a nasty taste in my mouth. Clorinda was certainly “feisty” but she had no redeeming qualities that might have made me care about her. (Given her appalling childhood, I should have done.) Even her later affection for Anne, her loyal spinster sister (the other sister being totally superfluous to the plot) only served to further reveal Clorinda’s arrogance. Whist I was interested to find out about Miss Hodgson Burnett’s life and career, I would rather have read her biography than ploughed through this novel.