The Incomplete Amorist (by E Nesbit)

I very much enjoyed, both as a child and an adult, E Nesbit’s classic children’s books such as ‘The Railway Children’ and ‘Five Children and It’. On acquiring a Kindle some years ago I was delighted to learn that she (along with various other authors) had written some lesser-known works for adults. I downloaded a lot of free out-of-copyright books and on a recent trip to the UK, decided to read this one.

‘The Incomplete Amorist’ was first published in 1906, so it’s inevitably steeped in Victorian morality and culture. So I had no problem realising how shocking it is for 18-year-old Betty, the respectable step-daughter of a Vicar, to meet Vernon, an artist, ten years her senior, without a chaperone. She justifies the meetings in her own mind, as educational; Vernon offers to teach her, and it’s fairly clear that he is a serial womaniser who hopes to seduce a young girl.

But Betty is really very innocent; her shyness and honesty, which he takes as coquetry, keeps him somewhat at arm’s length. Unsurprisingly her stepfather finds out and is horrified, banning her to her room and refusing to allow her to see him again. It could have been melodramatic; it could have been dull. But there’s a lot of irony in the writing, and some wry observations that lift this out of the mundane. The relationship between Betty and her stepfather is full of misunderstandings, and I found myself hoping that they would eventually learn to understand each other.

Much of the story is set in Paris, where Betty goes to study art with a respectable lady after the intervention of one of her aunts. Vernon is in the same city, and two new characters appear who befriend Betty and gradually the four develop a rather complex love quadrangle (if that’s the phrase).

In places the story was rather slow-moving, and the conversation a bit stilted, but given that it was written well over a hundred years ago, it’s quite lively and even risqué in places. Nothing is ever stated outright, but there are implications and innuendoes, and a fair amount of tension when Betty decides to try and live independently for a while.

‘The Incomplete Amorist’ was a good book to read when on holiday; it wasn’t so gripping that I couldn’t put it down at any point but the characters and situations were distinct enough that I never forgot who was whom, or got lost in the story when picking it up to read a bit more at bedtime.

I didn’t think it anywhere near as good as the author’s children’s books, but on the whole I liked this book and am glad I read it. The link above is to a print copy of the book, but it's easy enough to find free or inexpensively for the Kindle or other ebook readers, or as part of an E Nesbit collection.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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