Irene Iddesleigh is a novel about a woman who marries a wealthy aristocrat but whose marriage quickly collapses when he discovers her love for another man. He keeps her a prisoner in his estate, but she ultimately flees, leaving behind not only her estranged husband, but their son as well.
What makes this book, ah, distinctive, is the prose style. Here, for example, is the beginning of Chapter V:
Our hopes when elevated to that standard of ambition which demands unison may fall asunder like an ancient ruin. They are no longer fit for construction unless on an approved principle. They smoulder away like the ashes of burnt embers, and are cast outwardly from their confined abode, never more to be found where once they existed only as smouldering serpents of scorned pride.
What does this mean, you ask? Frankly, I have no idea. Let’s try some of the dialogue:
“The sole object of my visit, my dear Irene”—here Sir John clasped her tender hand in his—“tonight is to elicit from you a matter that lately has cast a shadowy gloom over my anticipated bright and cheerful future. I am not one of those mortals who takes offence at trifles, neither am I a man of hasty temper or words—quite the contrary, I assure you; but it has, fortunately or unfortunately, been probably a failing amongst my ancestors to court sensitiveness in its minutest detail, and, I must acknowledge, I stray not from any of them in this particular point.”
Not exactly spare, is it?
Okay, it’s time I told you the background on this book: it’s considered to be one of the worst novels of all time. Luminaries like Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis mocked it for its legendary badness. (Supposedly, Tolkien and Lewis’s group The Inklings would hold competitions to see how long it was possible to read from it without laughing.)
I admit, I find this all a little distasteful. Ros was a self-published author, whose husband financed the publication of her novel as an anniversary present. So, when I read that Twain, Tolkien, Lewis et al. mocked her work, it brings to mind the traditionally published authors who sneer at indie authors of today. Oh yes; I am very inclined to be sympathetic to Ros.
So is it really one of the worst books ever written? Or did successful literary men simply delight in kicking a humble woman while she was down?
One of the main charges leveled against Ros is her use of purple prose, and as the above passages demonstrate, there is solid evidence to convict her of this. I didn’t cherrypick the worst examples, either. The whole thing is like that. Here’s another one:
The thickest stroke of sadness can be effaced in an instant, and substituted with deeper traces of joy. The heart of honest ages, though blackened at times with domestic troubles, rejoices when those troubles are surmounted with blessings which proclaim future happiness.
You might say that sounds long-winded and pompous. Maybe it does. And yet, is it so different than this?
Men thin away to insignificance and oblivion quite as often by not making the most of good spirits when they have them as by lacking good spirits when they are indispensable. Gabriel lately, for the first time since his prostration by misfortune, had been independent in thought and vigorous in action to a marked extent — conditions which, powerless without an opportunity as an opportunity without them is barren, would have given him a sure lift upwards when the favourable conjunction should have occurred.
That is from Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which is not regarded as one of the worst books ever written. Let’s try one more:
While I looked, I thought myself happy, and was surprised to find myself erelong weeping—and why? For the doom which had reft me from adhesion to my master: for him I was no more to see; for the desperate grief and fatal fury-—consequences of my departure—which might now, perhaps, be dragging him from the path of right, too far to leave hope of ultimate restoration thither. At this thought, I turned my face aside from the lovely sky of eve and lonely vale of Morton—I say lonely, for in that bend of it visible to me, there was no building apparent save the church and the parsonage, half-hid in trees; and, quite at the extremity, the roof of Vale-Hall, where the rich Mr. Oliver and his daughter lived.
That is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which is one of the most beloved British novels in history. And yet, while this prose may not be exactly purple, it is at least a very suspicious shade of blue.
To be clear, I like both Jane Eyre and Far from the Madding Crowd. And even my well-known penchant for contrarian takes does not extend to arguing that Irene Iddesleigh is as good as either of them. It distinctly isn’t. But still, you can see similarities. These apples have fallen from the same tree, even if one is a bit misshapen and has these weird brown spots.
And what tree is that? The tree is Victorian Romanticism. Its roots are deep and its seeds are everywhere. While its fruit can be justly criticized for being overwrought and melodramatic, it is also really, really popular and enduring.
Virtually all Victorian prose, even the good stuff, seems excessively florid to the modern reader. Expectations of what writing should be were just different back then. If we condemn Irene Iddesleigh for being flabby and flowery, mustn’t we say the other Victorian novels exhibit many of the risk factors for same?
I think at least part of the reason for the extreme contempt leveled at Irene Iddesleigh is its publication date. It’s an 1860s novel published in 1897. The reaction against Victorian Romanticism was already underway, and as Paul Graham once observed, “There is nothing so unfashionable as the last, discarded fashion.” It was just the wrong time for that sort of thing.
Still, it is definitely not the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not good, except strictly as an exercise in campy melodrama, but it’s actually more fun than some Serious Works Of Great Literature that I’ve read.