Ever heard of Louis Couperus? Me neither. But it turns out he’s THE naturalist writer of 19th-century Holland — their answer to Flaubert, perhaps, or Tolstoy. Which makes Eline Vere the Dutch version of Madame Bovary or possibly Anna Karenina. The problem with those nutty heroines is that they can be pretty annoying to the reader, and in this novel we spend a great deal of time in Eline’s head. Since she’s inclined to be high-strung and narcisisstic, it gets wearing. On the other hand, since Couperus was twenty-six (and a guy) when he wrote this, it’s a pretty impressive imaginative feat.
The setting is The Hague, the time 1889, and part of the interest for me was my eternal fascination with the details of prosperous late-19th-century life: the plush, the gaslights, the hangings, the tulle ball gowns. Couperus doesn’t stint on these descriptions but he also makes clear the extent to which the comfortable upholstery of this life is protective but also rigid. I think it was Walter Benjamin who pointed out the 19th-century fascination with padded cases for the objects they held precious, and that image came frequently to mind.
So, Eline. She is the beautiful talented orphan daughter of an eccentric unsuccessful painter. She lives with her bossy sister Betsy in physical comfort and great respectability. But her position as a pretty, cultured, marriageable young lady is not quite satisfying to her. Our first hint of trouble is her excessive focus on what other people are thinking about her. Hint number two is her overheated crush on an opera singer — she not only entertains romantic fantasies about him but even collects an album full of photographs, which she is then put to the trouble of burning when her illusions about him are dashed.
Big trouble comes, though, when she gets engaged to the honest, good-hearted Otto. She is delighted at first to surrender to his even temper and sunny outlook, but she begins to entertain doubts about him when her rakish, neurasthenic, cynical cousin Vincent more or less calls her back to the Dark Side. The slippery slope for an upper-crust girl apparently looked the same in The Hague as it did in Edith Wharton’s Old New York: sketchy friends, a suspicious cough, the habit of wearing only black dresses, little drops measured from a dark glass bottle… What makes Eline Vere different is that, just as Couperus spent considerable time on Eline’s affectations, he also invests energy in her absolute madness. And he’s darn convincing. The scene when she considers and discards various suicide methods is hair-raising. And even though Couperus goes to the trouble of tying a few pretty marital knots in the relationships of some of the (many) secondary characters, that won’t be what you remember when you close the book.