Books: Not New but Fresh

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THE SEMI-ATTACHED COUPLE (250 pp.) —Emily Eden—Houghfon Mifflin ($2.75).

In 1814, when Emily Eden was 17, she wrote to her sister: "We hear that Lord Byron is going to be a good boy, and will never be naughty no more, and he is really and truly writing a new version of the psalms!" Soon afterwards, the eldest son of England's late Prime Minister Spencer Perceval read aloud to Emily from Paradise Lost, and she assumed from such attention that she could shortly expect a proposal. But Perceval was apparently fickle, and Emily was left melancholy for a year; it took many applications of leeches and a trip to the south of France to cure her. Rich with experience of life, she was now able to advise a jilted friend. Emily's prescription: one egg less at teatime, fewer leeches.

Anthony Eden, who is obviously proud of his kinship (great-great-grandnephew) with Author Emily Eden, sets all these details down in a warm introduction to her novel, The Semi-Attached Couple. Written around 1830, it was not published in England until 1860, is now brought out for the first time in the U.S. This spare-time novel, rescued from the bureau drawer of a Victorian lady, is something more than a literary curio. Like her more famous predecessor, Jane Austen, Emily had 19th Century society's number. Superficially, The Semi-Attached Couple is a novel about the misunderstanding that almost wrecks a marriage and the reconciliation that saves it. But on the way to a conventional happy ending Author Eden disarmingly portrays her smart-set society with an offhand malice that has as much charm as bite.

Exposure without Lather. U.S. readers will find here the kind of urbane social criticism rarely to be found in their own literature, but which, in England, is as old as the novel itself. Miss Eden neatly exposes the shams and pettinesses of her lords and ladies without working up an angry lather, and her comic exposure of local election practices of the period is more devastating than the most earnest indignation.

Says Anthony Eden: "In the days of which Miss Eden wrote, a few families . . . virtually ruled Britain during a challenging phase of her existence. Miss Eden herself was born during the Napoleonic Wars, and was a member of, or related to, many of the families with whom this power lay."

No one can accuse Emily of sparing her class or her relations. It is especially the country-house parties with their petty society intrigues that she turns so smoothly on her satirical spit. Many readers, reeling from the poorly disguised sociology in current top fiction sellers, will wonder if Emily's method might not be at least as effective, even now.