All of that is to say that this 1895 novel by Ada Cambridge feels very much like a curate's egg. It is the story of Adam Drewe, whose mother rejects him at first sight, such an ugly baby is he.
All its features were down at the bottom of its face, instead of being fairly distributed over it. The eyes, under the great bulging forehead, were large, and the ears enormous; the rudimentary broad nose and mouth were puckered together as if a weight had squeezed them. He was exactly like a little goblin in a fairy picture book.But just like in a fairy tale, the goblin child is a prince on the inside. He grows up, unloved and abused, into a tender, brilliant, big-hearted young man. This is due partly to his loving grandmother, who takes him in after his father dies and his awful mother remarries a wicked stepfather. He is sustained too by the friendship of Richard Delavel, which links this to Cambridge's earlier book, A Marked Man. At a dance one fateful evening, Adam meets Fidelia Plunket, who has been temporarily blinded in an accident. Here is someone who can't see his unfortunate exterior but warms instantly to his heart and mind. Naturally, the course of true love cannot run smooth, and Adam ends up in Australia, where he meets Richard again, goes into business and makes his fortune. He also becomes a world-famous and best-selling novelist (writing in the style of "the master," who I think for Ada Cambridge must be Henry James).
I liked Adam's story, with a major exception noted below. His childhood is such an awful one, portrayed realistically, until he is rescued. I enjoyed meeting Richard Delavel and his daughter Susan again, filling in some of the gaps in their stories. It was interesting to read Ada Cambridge's take on a writer's life, and to speculate about how much she was drawing on her own experiences. One of Adam's most successful novels, The Law Made Flesh, is "the novel with a problem in it - a sex problem, of course..." I can't decide what kind of "sex problem" Cambridge had in mind, or how her audience would have understood that phrase in 1895. And as always, Cambridge paints such a beautiful picture of Australia in this book, as in her others, that I want to book a flight there immediately.
Those were the good parts. What I found least palatable about the book is Adam's love story, on several levels. First, the idea that Adam chooses a visually-impaired woman to fall in love with, because she won't be repulsed by his ugliness, is just so wrong. I doubt it bothered readers in 1895, and I suppose Cambridge deserves some credit for featuring a character with a disability as a heroine. But it still made me very uncomfortable. I also found their love completely over-the-top and slightly nauseating. Adam turns out to be one of those idolizing lovers, always ready to fall down and worship.
As she blindly gazed at him, he gazed at her, with reverence unutterable. He would have liked to kneel. For if he was a man, she was all but a woman - the sacred mystery of mysteries, the informing spirit of his new man's world. And that lovely mouth, that tender throat and chin, that exquisite curve of her young breast! He stood spell-bound before her, suffocated with emotion.A little of that goes a very, very long way - and unfortunately, Adam is suffocated with emotion far too often. He doesn't speak, so Fidelia can't, and things go awry. But his fidelity to her doesn't stop him from attaching himself to other women, once he settles in Australia.**
I read a modern reprint of this novel, from the Mulini Press in Canberra. The editors describe it as "Cambridge's most interesting novel of the Williamstown period" (the later years of her writing career). It was definitely interesting, but nowhere near as satisfying as The Three Miss Kings, which I found good all through - or A Humble Enterprise, despite some caveats.
One of these is the maid in his boarding house, who has no idea that he is courting her and blithely one day announces her impending marriage to him. He also becomes involved with a married woman, just "as friends," but still ends up in the divorce court. I felt really badly for the last of these women, abandoned immediately when Adam receives news that Fidelia is free again. She breaks her heart over him, and Cambridge wallows in the emotion of a protracted farewell between them, where they almost but not quite kiss, tears running down their faces. I wanted to smack Adam at that point. And write a sequel where Sarah meets a man worthy of her.