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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Eline Vere

Louis Couperus

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To purchase Eline Vere

Title: Eline Vere
Author: Louis Couperus
Genre: Novel
Written: 1889 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 523 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Eline Vere - US
Eline Vere - UK
Eline Vere - Canada
  • A Novel of The Hague
  • Dutch title: Eline Vere
  • Translated by Ina Rilke
  • With an Afterword by Paul Binding
  • Previously translated by J.T.Grein (1892)
  • Eline Vere was made into a film in 1991, directed by Harry Kümel and starring Marianne Basler

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Our Assessment:

A- : strong character-portrait, as well as of that place and those times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times* . 28/2/1892 .
Scotland on Sunday . 25/4/2010 Michael Pye
Wall Street Journal . 24/7/2010 Michael Dirda

[* review of the earlier translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is, however, a remarkable novel and shows, to the intelligent reader, that Couperus has great power, and that he can hold himself in the leash. There may be an exhibition of Dutch phlegm at times, and yet a whirlwind of passion is reached in the last page of the book. (...) The trouble about a romance of this kind is that, in order to understand it, there must be strict attention paid to details, and Couperus is overfond of them." - The New York Times

  • "Couperus is a fine, driving storyteller even when he's off telling fairy stories in some symbolist landscape as in the rather mimsy Psyche. He wrote Eline Vere for serialisation, so it has the energy of the great Victorian novels without the melodrama, something astounding spread over 600 careful pages. (...) Rediscovered novels usually make you realise why they were lost in the first place, but Eline Vere is an exception: a pleasure we've missed for far too long" - Michael Pye, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Eline Vere is quite clearly out of place in the stolid world of Dutch burghers and rentiers. In fact, like so many of her sisters in 19th-century literature, most notably Flaubert's Emma Bovary, Eline suffers from a terrible sickness: She lives so much in her imagination and daydreams that reality suffers by comparison (.....) Louis Couperus was only 26 when the novel was first published, but already he handles his many characters with masterly ease and keeps his prose smooth, light and flowing: Ina Rilke's translation cannot be praised highly enough." - Michael Dirda, Wall Street Journal
  • "(I)n 1889 Eline Vere was published. This was an event ! This intimate study, so full of freshness and beauty of style, of the modern bourgeoisie of The Hague, in which the author proved his capacity for the delicate analysis which makes it perhaps one of the most remarkable studies of the psychology of love which our literature possesses, is still as fresh to-day and as interesting as when it appeared thirty years ago." - Daily Telegraph (17/7/1923)

  • "There is not a little of what I suppose would be classed as orchidaceous in this book, where beauty for beauty's sake, the perfume of flowers, the hauteur of intellect, and the splendour of jewels take too prominent a place. (...) There was a tendency to over-luscious melancholy and egotistical self-analysis in Eline Vere, which the author was to outgrow without ever entirely abandoning." - Edmund Gosse, Sunday Times (22/7/1923)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the title suggests, Eline Vere -- twenty-three when the novel opens -- is the central figure of this story, but Eline Vere, subtitled A Novel of The Hague, is also very much a (large-)chamber piece, richly populated by those in Eline's circles. It is not a novel of The Hague as whole, but certainly portrays a specific slice of late nineteenth century Haagse life in close detail. Indeed, Couperus makes his intentions clear in the opening chapter, which features many of the characters participating in and viewing a showing of various tableaux vivants -- a term that applies equally well to the novel itself, a work presented as a sequence of closely described set and often mannered scenes. Significantly, too, while many of the characters are introduced in this first chapter, Eline remains off-stage: she neither participates nor observes, having begged off attending, claiming not to feel up to it: the first mention of her is to note her absence: "Such a shame Eline is not here". Couperus does not constantly push her to the forefront, or limit his focus to the experiences directly around her -- but even when she is out of the picture, she casts some shadows, large or small or flickering. (Neatly bookending the novel, Eline also does not appear in the novel's final, almost postscript chapter, which jumps a year ahead of the close of the action from the previous chapter.)
       Eline lost her parents -- a beloved father who was a would-be painter "but wanting in the strength to create" and a domineering, older mother -- still in youth, and she and her older sister Betsy were raised by an aunt. As the novel opens, Eline is living with her now-married older sister. Betsy is married to Henk van Raat, a man of leisure, wealthy enough that he doesn't have to work for a living; money isn't an issue for the sisters, either: "the Vere girls had substantial private means of their own". Henk treats Eline with great warmth and like a close little sister; it seems that, before Betsy married him, the two were even closer, as Eline admits to having always: "wondered at the mysterious attraction she had felt for Henk", but has buried this deep inside her, now that he is married to her sister.
       The relationship between the sisters is a more difficult one. They have very different in character, which doesn't help; neither does the way they see it and each other:

Betsy sensed the contrast between her own energetic briskness, arising from her robust health, and her sister's languishing elegance
       They rub each other in the wrong ways, with temperamental Betsy, set in her ways and her expectations (including of due deference to her as lady of the house), having a tendency to lash out. The two repeatedly clash -- often in minor ways, but eventually forcefully enough that Eline rushes out into a stormy night and refuses to make peace or return to that van Raat household. (Amusingly enough, after the all the dust of the dust-up has finally settled -- more than a year and half later -- and Eline settles into a Hague household again she chooses to let herself be taken in by old Madame van Raat, Henk's mother.)
       Eline is considered charming and well-liked in her circles, but remains at something of a distance from everyone (as is already suggested by her absence from the novel's opening scene). Despite family and friends, she isn't intimately close to anyone -- having neither any friend nor, in Betsy, a sister to whom she could really pour her heart out, for example. It's unsurprising to hear, well into the novel, her (then-)future in-law family observing:
     'Well, I don't know her very well yet. I do think it very nice of her to adapt so entirely top our ways and habits, so that we can dispense with ceremony -- for which I wouldn't have time in any case; I'm far too busy. I appreciate that very much. But you know me, it takes me a while to form an opinion about people.'
     'That sounds remarkably diplomatic to my ears. As for me, I either like someone or I don't. It's as simple as that.'
     'Oh, I wasn't being diplomatic, all I meant was that I hardly know Eline since she's only been here a week. She seems very nice, but I'm not sure how I feel about her yet.'
     It was on the tip of Mathilda's tongue to say that she wasn't sure how she felt about Eline either, despite having known her for years, but she kept silent.
       Eline is an elusive character -- likely due in no small part to the fact that she is uncertain of her own desires (much less ambitions). As she herself diagnoses: "there's a part of me that is underdeveloped, incomplete. I'm always racked with doubt, never sure about anything". Her isolation and frustration is most clearly documented when she is first introduced, when she lets loose to Henk (who, though sympathetic, is decidedly not equipped to even begin to understand what troubles her):
The urge to pour her heart out was too strong to resist. What was she living for ? What use could she be to anyone ? She wandered about the room, wringing her hands and lamenting without pause. She didn't care if she died within the hour. she didn't care about anything at all, it was just that her existence was so futile, so useless, without anything she could wholeheartedly devote herself to, and it was all becoming too much to bear.
       It's an extreme reaction, however; while often impetuous, Eline long generally shows more self-control and does not succumb -- at least not this openly -- to such self-pitying outbursts (at least until she begins twisting in her ultimate downward spiral). But the fundamental issues she complains of remain, and define her and her actions; she remains unsettled -- literally, variously, so (including in not finding any sort of settled living arrangements after she leaves Henk and Betsy's house). So also, much later, Madame van Raat can observe closer at hand:
The previous evening the old lady had been struck by how restless Eline seemed, picking up objects and putting them down again, adjusting their position ever so slightly, darting furtive looks at the window, the door or the ceiling in what seemed like alarm, twitching her head, drumming her fingers on the table; all of this alternating with sudden fits of apathy, when she dropped into a chair and leant back with an air of utter exhaustion.
       Eline knows, for example, that: "her heart yearned for passionate love, despite her valiant efforts to suppress all such feelings", but successive sallies founder. Clearly, there remains some residual disappointment regarding Henk, but that is from a time before the story proper. For a while she succumbs to a girlish fixation on a singer, where like a moonstruck teen she fills an album with nothing but portraits of the man she finds herself obsessed by, and contrives casual meetings at a distance -- only to eventually find: "everything was ruined, all her visions and daydreams pulverised".
       If that was still a secret, private obsession that even she could recognize as wishful fantasy, her next is much more open, and substantial. She has received several offers of marriage, but most are so incidental that they, and the men behind them, don't even rate a mention, but then gets one where: "there was no reason she could think of to turn him down". She accepts, and for a while plays along happily enough at being engaged, but something remains missing, and she eventually breaks it off.
       Although made up of chapters that describe in great and vivid detail mundane gatherings or preparations, everyday scenes from lives, this heart of the novel -- Eline's engagement to Otto --, which itself is then chronicled quite closely, is, remarkably, kicked off without description of the nominal spark. Yes, Otto's play for Eline begins earlier, as he begins to make his feelings known -- but his actual proposal, and Eline's immediate reaction, emotional and otherwise, aren't described. It's inevitability, both before and after, perhaps do make the moment itself skippable -- and yet it's a very noticeable omission in such a detail- and scene-focussed novel (and is an impressive display of Couperus' confidence: not too many writers would imagine they could get away with this). The decline and collapse of the union, in small gestures, words, and words left unspoken, is then handled in masterly fashion. In this sequence of events Couperus too focuses on disintegration -- as, indeed, Eline Vere's story as a whole is one of disintegration.
       There are other men whom Eline feels a connection to, including cousin Vincent Vere -- "a bit of a bounder, I'm afraid", as Betsy describes him, and someone who was not very good at making plans (but was also unbothered by the uncertainty of what might come next): "he had always lived from day to day". Like Eline, Vincent is a Vere (unlike Betsy, who takes after her mother), and like Eline he is also somewhat sickly -- giving him another excuse for why he doesn't settle on a specific career or path. Eline is intrigued by his fatalism -- he's truly convinced that there's little to be done to shape the future, and that things will happen regardless of any attempts to shape them -- and doesn't find the notion entirely unbelievable (as it perhaps also provides excuse and explanation for the way her own life is going):
     It's strange, but I have a feeling you might be right. It could be true, I suppose.
       Peripatetic Vincent goes abroad again -- to the United States --, but is too ill to manage to gain any sort of meaningful foothold, but his close and wealthy friend Lawrence St Clare takes him back to Europe with him as his traveling companion. St Clare is also taken by Eline, and offers a fresh, different perspective; significantly, they first meet in Brussels -- i.e. away from The Hague ("such a backwater, everyone knew everyone else, at least by sight, and one ran into the same people all the time -- too dull for words !" as Vincent complains) --, when Eline is living with her now-married Uncle Daniel and lively wife Eliza; St Clare's advice is also for her to: "Break with your past, put it out of your mind". But part of Eline's problem is that she can not escape her world; so also she returns to The Hague (and that certainly does her no good). St Clare offers the possibility of escape -- as he too proposes to her (and this time Couperus closely describes the entire meeting and exchange) -- but Eline can not bring herself to embrace it.
       Eline sees herself, as she repeatedly says, as broken, and she has neither the will nor the strength to try to find any semblance of wholeness again; the task appears too daunting to her. Her failure is in not even attempting to gather herself again -- what steps she takes, including traveling about some, are not resolute enough to even move her forward the slightest bit, hardly amounting to more than the time she spends reclined on some sofa at home, lost in thoughts and daydreams -- and instead wallowing in her condition:
Because, even though I'm young, I'm quite broken. Why won't you believe me ? Because everything in me is shattered, because my soul is in ruins.
       St Clare had sensibly wondered: "Aren't you rather bored ? Couldn't that be the cause of your unhappiness ?" but that's far too simple for Eline; she'd much rather wallow in her misery than really try to tackle it. And, admittedly, she does try to get involved -- with a local church for a while, for example -- but doesn't find anything that she can really bear. Her fragile health even takes one of her few pleasures away, as her doctors insist she should not sing -- literally muffling her.
       Eline's condition worsens, and her isolation and misery are heightened; eventually she even lets loose, with a "shrill, crazed edge to her voice", on poor uncomprehending Ben, Betsy's dull young boy:
No, you don't know what Auntie's raving about, do you ? But it feels so good to rant and rave for once ! I wish I could do something outrageous, something quite mad, but there's nothing I can think of. I'm so dull nowadays that I can't even think at all.
       Eline is quite self-aware -- so also, for example:
She was struck by how easy it was for her to engage the sympathy of men, while women only seemed to like her if she made a conscious effort to make herself agreeable to them.
       But she can't get much deeper than that. She is, in many ways, an innocent; she is certainly not conniving. If Couperus' novel is A Novel of The Hague, it is also the story of a woman who is not of her time or her place: Eline simply does not belong, and can not bring herself to fit in anywhere -- even as so many try to find a place for her, willing to take her in after one fashion or another.
       Eline does not belong in this place and time, but she can not break free. She is frustrated by how:
Life was so full of sham and make-believe ! She had always been someone who pretended, to herself as well as to everybody else, and she was still doing it -- she could not do otherwise, so ingrained a habit had it become.
       This proves her ultimate failing: she is unable to be true to herself -- in no small part because she does not grasp what that truth might be. Neither, however, is she able to simply embrace a role and play her part. She tries, for a while, repeatedly, and in different forms, but she always breaks the shell and shatters the illusion. And so, of course, hers is destined to be a tragic tale.
       While Eline is the central figure of the novel, Couperus offers several other storylines that are largely or completely separate. These are minor, but several chapters focus entirely on them, and they involve other couplings, as numerous characters in Eline's larger circle get married; the final chapter even culminates in the engagement of Eline's former fiancé. He, and the others, adapt, taking a variety of circumstances and making what they can of them, each apparently finding happiness (though one of Eline's married friends, who took her in when she first fled her sister's household, does die, far abroad).
       These shifts away from Eline -- or the elisions, as the novel at one point jumps ahead eighteen month, during which time Eline had traveled widely, mostly with her aunt and uncle -- help keep the novel from becoming too consumed with Eline's life and fate; Couperus deftly does not allow her to overpower the novel. The novel was first serialized, and so it's not that surprising that many of the chapters have a bit of the feel of set and staged scenes -- some feeling quite incidental to both the larger and smaller stories -- but Couperus also excels at these: Eline Vere truly is a rich period portrait of (certain circles in) The Hague. This is a novel of tableaux vivants, but they are anything but static.
       Couperus shows a fine touch -- though he can get caught up in overly-rich and sumptuous description. Only rarely does he (really, really) over-do it however, such as with a ghastly scene of Eline at a brand-new Bechstein Madame van Raat purchases:
Madame de Raat watched her sadly; she had cherished the illusion that Eline would sing with her Paul, and that Paul might succumb to the melodious, convivial atmosphere and take to staying in of an evening, but all she heard was loud, sobbing arpeggios, the weeping dewdrops of a chromatic tremolo, and the big, splashing tears of painful staccatos.
       Couperus' writing is leisurely, even languorous -- reflecting also many of the characters and their rather easy-going lives --, but mostly strikes the balance between sumptuous and to the point. There are longueurs, especially early on, but it builds and all adds up nicely, into quite a powerful tale. Eline Vere is a successful character portrait -- even as that character remains opaque (but then that's part of the point, as she never comes to truly know herself either) -- as well as a successful period-(and-place-) piece, a novel of (a certain slice of society of) The Hague in the late nineteenth century. Couperus does private life and the bustle of large families well -- remarkably, for example, with a few scenes of small children really being children in a way that is rarely seen in the fiction of the times -- and while there are too many characters for him to bring much depth to most of them, he excels in the presentation of their interactions.
       Eline Vere is a novel that requires some patience -- or perhaps indulgence -- but is a fine, weighty read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 October 2020

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Eline Vere: Reviews: Eline Vere - the film: Louis Couperus: Other books by Louis Couperus under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Louis Couperus lived 1863 to 1923.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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