Helen Stanley is a kind, beautiful, good girl. Brought up by her uncle, Dean Stanley, she was destined to be a great heiress. Unfortunately when her uncle died, she discovered that he had been extravagant & she was left with nothing but a small income from her mother & a lot of the Dean’s debts. She commits herself to paying those debts & restricts herself to as little income as possible to do this.
Helen is invited to live with her greatest friend, Lady Cecilia Davenant, now married to General Clarendon. The General is a quiet, sober, intensely moral man who has declared that he could never marry a woman who had loved before. Although Helen is apprehensive about committing herself to live with the Clarendons, she & the General soon become good friends. Cecilia’s mother, Lady Davenant, regards Helen as another daughter & admires her principled stand over her uncle’s debts. Cecilia is overjoyed to have Helen with her but Cecilia has secrets & a tendency to tell white lies that will soon disrupt Helen’s life.
The first fib isn’t so bad. General Clarendon’s ward, Granville Beauclerc, is coming to stay at Clarendon Park. Cecilia has teased Helen with the idea of the two of them making a match & to stop Helen feeling self-conscious, tells her that Granville is practically engaged to another. Helen is therefore perfectly natural & charming with Granville & he soon falls in love with her. Helen is confused about her own feelings & disapproves of Granville pursuing her when he’s supposed to be engaged, so blows hot & cold in confusion so that Granville thinks her capricious & flighty. Cecilia eventually sorts out this mistake & the couple become engaged.
Cecilia’s next web of lies is much more serious. When Cecilia, Helen & Lady Davenant were in Florence some years before, Cecilia had fallen in love with an adventurer, Colonel D’Aubigny, & had written him very indiscreet letters. Knowing the General’s strictures about first love, Cecilia had been too afraid to admit her feelings for D’Aubigny. After D’Aubigny’s death, the letters are sent to the General by an ill-wisher. Cecilia is terrified & implores Helen to accept the packet of letters without actually admitting that she had written them. Helen agrees, although she has considerable misgivings, & soon she is an object of gossip in Society, she has lost the General’s good opinion & has ruined her prospects of happiness with Granville.
Elizabeth Gaskell was apparently influenced by Helen when she came to write her last novel, Wives & Daughters, & there are some similarities in the plot. Cecilia’s loose notions of truth are at the core of the novel. She is an incredibly selfish young woman who would be content to let Helen’s happiness & reputation be ruined (although she cries & pleads quite beautifully) rather than tell the truth to her husband & risk losing his love. Although I found Helen’s acquiescence infuriating, I could also see how subtly Edgeworth had structured the plot. From the first step of Helen’s just accepting the packet of letters from the General (who, of course, had been too much of a gentleman to do more than look at the opening sentence & ask his wife whose writing it was. Cowardly Cecilia hints that it’s Helen’s rather than her own very similar hand) to the secret of the letters gradually becoming more widely known to the eventual threat of publication, each step is carefully judged. Helen agonizes over her friend’s honesty & selfishness but never actually refuses anything Cecilia asks of her. Cecilia is full of good intentions but continually puts off the crucial confession as the lies & evasions become more complicated.
There are some wonderful supporting characters in the novel. I didn’t think much of our hero, Granville. He acts in quite a profligate way with his money, although he’s beholden to the General until he comes of age. His schemes to restore a friend to his family home & then to spend an incredible amount of money on a whim to provide a day’s hawking for a house party are not good portents of a sensible man or a solvent future husband for Helen. Horace Churchill is a waspish, witty man who seems to spend his life going from one country house party to the next. He became interested in Helen but his ill-nature didn’t recommend him to her & her decided refusal made him into a dangerous enemy. Cecilia’s cousins, Louisa Castlefort & Katrine Hawksley, are also enemies of Helen. Katrine because she fancied Granville & Louisa because she hoped to rid herself of her sister by encouraging Cecilia to offer her a home. Both are jealous of Helen & delighted when the scandal of the letters seems about to ruin her life. Lady Bearcroft is a vulgar nouveau riche social climber who loves talking loudly & indiscreetly but often skewers the pretensions of others. At least she has a kind heart.
Helen was Maria Edgeworth’s final novel, published in 1834. Edgeworth was probably at the height of her fame in the early 1800s when she was one of the first writers of regional novels. Her Irish novels, including The Absentee, influenced Sir Walter Scott when he came to write his Scottish novels. Jane Austen was a fan. Edgeworth wrote to her publisher, “I have been reproached for making my moral in some stories too prominent. I am sensible of the inconvenience of this both to reader and writer & have taken much pains to avoid it in Helen.” I haven’t read enough of her work to judge but I found Helen a novel with morality at its core. From the intensely correct characters like the General & Helen to the more morally slipshod like Cecilia & Horace Churchill, moral issues drive the plot. The danger of taking one false step is emphasized again & again. The themes anticipate the Victorian novels of Gaskell & Trollope. The drama of the second half of the book is involving & Helen is a very readable novel. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys the Victorians.