Nelida is a romance novel, published in
1846. So why in the world would I be reading it? Therein lies a story. I’m not
just a writer, but also a classical music geek. My official celebrity crush is
Franz Liszt, a Hungarian pianist/composer. If you are well-read in music
history, you know that Liszt was not just famous for being an unprecedented
piano virtuoso, but also one of the most scandalous figures of his time as far
as his love-life went.
novel was written by his mistress of ten years, the mother of his three
children, around the time they finally broke up. It was a bestseller in its
day, but probably not because it was a great book.
So, first, I’ll discuss the novel’s problems.
One of the most glaring problems is the main character. Not a good problem to
have. Nelida, is impossible for me to connect with. I’ll give you a quick
run-down of the plot so you know. Nelida is a ridiculously sweet, ridiculously
innocent girl who befriends, in her childhood, a gypsy boy named Geurmann. (And
everyone reading the book at the time knew who these two characters
represented.) After a little incident with trespassing and cherry-stealing,
Nelida is no longer permitted to associate with the low-bred Geurmann.
Years later, Geurmann re-enters Nelida’s life
as a successful artist, who has been preoccupied with Nelida’s portrait for the
better part of his career. And, of course, they fall in love, but unfortunately
Geurmann, despite his outward appearance of graciousness, is no less an
uncultured peasant than he was back in the cherry orchard.
So, here’s the issue: Nelida has no
obligation, or reason to accept any of the catastrophes that proceed to befall
her. She simply lacks character to stand against any of the injustice and
immorality that she is crushed by. In this sense, she isn’t even as good a
character as the author, who was a strong-minded individual, if somewhat nasty
Here’s the thing—your character has to have a
motivation that binds them to their circumstances. For Nelida, it really isn’t
love for Geurmann—in fact, until the end, you can’t really be sure that she
cares for him at all. I certainly didn’t find him at all likable. Even if your
love-interest does turn out to be your villain, your main character must have a
reason to like them. Nelida proceeds to be walked over by Geurmann and
everybody else, not because she’s trapped in any way, but because d’Agoult
wants to be sure we all feel good and sorry for her, and know also, that
there’s nothing good in Geurmann (Liszt).
I was disappointed that neither she, nor
Liszt’s personalities were portrayed in the novel. Even with the messy,
unrealistic plot, it would have been that much more believable if Nelida had
the willpower and fierce pride of Marie, and Geurmann had the magnetism and
fiery spirit of Franz.
Actually, I have to admit, in the last few
chapters, she did develop Geurmann more strongly, and he was, at that point,
recognizable as Liszt’s more irritating side. Also, he was away from Nelida in
those last couple of chapters, which was good, because I really just can’t
enjoy reading about her.
I think separating him from Nelida also did
something good for d’Agoult’s portrayal of him. Without her cherubic contrast,
the author was able to depict him sympathetically. It shows when an author has
some feeling for a character as a person. Even an antagonist is a person. If
you have respect for their humanity, they’ll be more real.
Finally, there were two clichés that d’Agoult
impressed me by eluding. First off, Geurmann dies in the end. This is a twist,
because, if d’Agoult were going to hold to stereotypes, Nelida would have been
the one to go. Killing off Geurmann nicely gets rid of the problem, while not
doing what we were all expecting.
The other thing was, Geurmann didn’t actually
die in Nelida’s arms. He went into a coma for a day or two. More realistic, less
Overall, I wasn’t impressed. But I’ve got to
say, it was an interesting read in the historical context.