I read Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife for something of a dare. The Dr Johnson Reading Circle took a literary tour around Bath and I’d sampled a little something from most of the stops except Hannah Moore’s. We were told of her only novel, an interminably boring tale of a man looking for his perfect wife and, as a single man, was at the receiving end of a number of jokes that it might hold useful information. I decided to read it, just so I could say I had.
One of the biggest problems of the book is that Coelebs isn’t really in search of a wife. Not only has he been raised in such a way that most women wouldn’t fulfil his peculiar and exacting standards, he’s been raised in a way that only one woman can. This woman has herself been raised to be the perfect wife for him - a plan cooked up by both their fathers when the children were born. What’s more, Coelebs has been told to hold off his decision until he meets this woman, so when he’s meeting others, he already has that in the back of his mind. He hardly talks to any of the prospective candidates and actual spends far more time thinking about their mothers.
This is another problem with the book, Coelebs is weird. His ideal woman in the prelapsarian Eve as depicted in Paradise Lost. He particularly cites a moment when an angel pops down to see them and Eve can easily knock up a scrumptious meal and then doesn’t join in the conversation because the men are talking big talk. He doesn’t have any opinions that don’t come from his own father or from a rigid selection of books. When one woman says she enjoys literature, he starts a conversation with her about Latin poetry and is very disappointed that she can’t read Latin. (When it turns out Lucilla, his made-to-order bride does read Latin, it’s treated as something of a dirty secret.) Coelebs is far more interested in the parents and educational theories that have shaped the potential wives than the women themselves, having long conversations about how the woman was disciplined as a child and such. He’s a weirdo.
Most of the potential wives are barely characters, very few of them having dialogue, with far more attention paid to their mothers’ failings. Lucilla is allowed to speak for herself a little. She’s not an unpleasant person but so cowed under by her upbringing that she regards complements as dangerous to her spiritual welfare. She’s been educated to be knowledgable about music, literature and art but has been utterly discouraged to think of herself as a musician, writer or artist - what would women have to say in these mediums after all? (Says the female author…) Her sister Phoebe shows a little more life but that’s being ground out of her by maths lessons.
Lucilla’s father, Mr Stanley is presented as the ideal Christian. He is naturally kind and charitable but these acts are motivated by his deep faith. Many of the other characters in the book don’t quite reach his saintliness as they have all the right faith but none of the right actions, or all the right actions but none of the faith. He’s the worst. He hogs conversations, assuming that everyone wants to hear his opinions. He has been training his children in carefully manipulative ways, and training one of them to specifically be a perfect wife to Coelebs. He looks down on most people but if complemented says that he is just the same as other people with dark urges - we never find out what these are. He might not be outright abusive but his wife and children have been badgered and bothered and brainwashed into agreeing with everything he says.
The worst thing about this novel is that is is 400 pages long and dull. Even the potentially interesting notion of a search for a wife is squandered. There are no twists, turns or events in the book and there’s almost no dialogue, just monologues in succession. Despite being written by a woman, it reads like boring old man with nasty, narrow views opining on the world after a glass of port. It’s not a good book.