Merely a Girl by Tony Chapelle.
Feilding: Rangitawa Publishing (2016).
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
Merely a Girl is Palmerston North writer, Tony Chapelle’s first novel. Set in Victorian England, it tells the story of Adelaide (Addie) Gilbard, her family and members of her wider community. Through strong, complex characters, Merely a Girl gives the reader a fascinating insight into what it would have been like to be a person of this time, place, gender, class.
We first meet der, class,class ots oling to family and members of her wider community. Addie in her final year at a boarding school for girls. It is run “on the principles of Mrs Wollstonecraft”. She is intelligent, beautiful, and has been taught by her late father and the school to have rather an inflated view of herself and her potential. She is well-equipped, she believes, to make her mark on the world. However, when she returns to live with her sister and widowed mother, she is confronted by the limitations imposed on women, and her horizons begin to narrow.
Addie is an engaging character, credible in her strengths and her weaknesses. Her belief in her innate superiority, together with her youth, make her quite self-absorbed, judgemental of others, disinclined to allow for the way social pressures also shape other people. Sometimes this also means that she is emotionally detached from situations that you’d expect to affect her, such as the plight of her sister. But she is self-aware, notices this selfishness in herself, and judges herself for it, although, usually too late. Another of her strengths is the way she struggles to understand the events of her life with honesty and intelligence. She has been taught to trust her intellect, and to despise emotional and physical responses. Discounting those aspects of herself often leads to confusion and harsh self-judgement.
Throughout the story other characters, both male and female, are also victims of the repressive culture and struggle with sexual feeling that shock them. The results are often tragic. Addie distrusts such feelings in herself, but her younger sister, Meg, takes this to the extreme. In a world that allows her little control, Meg attempts to deny physical needs entirely, becoming anorexic and frail. The bewilderment that these and other characters feel is described with compassion and sensitivity.
The novel makes strong contrast, however, between those who are privileged and those who are not. While the lives of the destitute are briefly but tellingly glimpsed and seldom intrude into the respectable world of the privileged, Addie and her family are, nevertheless, aware that it is all too easy to fall into ruin. Oliver, brother to Addie and Meg, has been given opportunities denied to his sisters. He doesn’t doubt his entitlements as an English gentleman and his follies make him easy prey for swindlers. Soon his bad choices threaten the wellbeing of his mother and sisters.
For her own economic survival, and for that of her family, Addie accepts that she must make a good marriage. One suitor withdraws when he hears that she has a mixed-race ancestry. Attitudes of the time are convincingly explored. Addie’s uncle considers that evolution shows that all human beings share the same origin. Nevertheless, while he believes that skin colour is not significant, he is also certain that people who are white and Christian are culturally superior. Though the characters sometimes rebel against the strictures of the culture, they are nevertheless creatures of this culture.
Chapelle’s writing style skilfully echoes the language, the formality and long sentences, current in novels of the era. His prose is convincing, although when describing sexual encounters, it does become a little purple: “the swelling male member”. Then again, such euphemisms would have been the only language available to a young woman like Addie. Overall, the story-telling is lively, fast-flowing.
I have only a few dissatisfactions. All of the characters are strong and convincing, with the important exception of the man Addie eventually marries. He is described as “dangerous” but nothing that he does or says bears that out, rendering the description somewhat empty and clichéd.
The main thrust of the story is Addie’s search for meaning in her life. Most of the novel follows the growth of her painful realisation of the actual possibilities available to her, her awareness that she is, ‘merely a girl’, trapped in a life she would not choose. So when at last she sees a chance to use her abilities, this should feel momentous, both for the character and for the reader. But the change in her prospects is dealt with sketchily in the last few pages of the book. Consequently I felt cheated. This was a measure of my involvement with Addie. I cared about her. Will a sequel continue her story? No such reassurance to the reader appears in the book. Nonetheless, in hopes of a sequel, I congratulate Tony Chapelle and Rangitawa Publishing, and thoroughly recommend Merely a Girl.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet a children’s novel (Longacre Press, 2006); Albatross a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books, 2014) and Bones in the Octagon (Makaro Press, 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.
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