Victoria 2

A young Queen Victoria – four early years in the life of the second longest serving monarch in British history (1835 – 1839, Kensington and Buckingham Palace):  It’s a thought-provoking political time to be reading Victoria, British bestselling author Daisy Goodwin’s third historical novel set during the Victorian era.

I say this because Alexandrina Victoria’s ascension to the throne at the tender age of 18, after her uncle King William IV died, provoked tremendous anxiety and skepticism of her ability to govern during “uncertain times,” reminiscent of the fears and distrust about President-elect Donald Trump’s capacity to lead.  Similarly, early on in Queen Victoria’s reign, “the first mass movement driven by the working classes” (known as the Chartist Movement) sprang up, resonant of the fervent concerns of America’s working class that fueled Trump’s victory.

While this is not a political blog, Victoria is a political book that sends a timely message about duty to country above everything else, seen most impressively through the heart-tugging, dazzling character of Lord Melbourne.  He was her first Prime Minister.  He also became the young queen’s Private Secretary, her most trusted and influential advisor and defender.  Theirs was a deepening relationship that, for me, was the delicious aspect of the novel.

Melbourne, about fifty, initially served as a father figure (Victoria had lost hers).  Then he became her dearest companion, most comfortably as her riding partner.  From there, their relationship evolved to something more alluring, an emotional closeness that disturbed nearly everyone, spurning rumors and schemes to find her a suitable husband.  But it’s Melbourne, with his “arresting green eyes” – a “stealer of hearts” – who steals ours.

A man who didn’t have “the happiness he deserves,” so we can’t help but like and appreciate him, who put country first no matter the personal sacrifice, qualities of character I feel we saw very little of during the 2016 political campaign.  “I don’t believe in much,” he confessed.  “But there is one thing I do believe in, and that is the British Constitution, in all its tattered glory.”  Melbourne’s significance to the fledgling, untested queen – his encouragement, candor, counsel, integrity, affection, and charm – are standouts.

Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years.  So I also found it interesting Goodwin chose to focus only on Victoria from ages 16 through 20: two years before she was bequeathed the Crown to the first two years of her dynasty.  The novel shows us why.

These were transformative years, giving us context into understanding Victoria’s temperament and the challenges facing her.  She was small-framed and short at 4 ft. 11 inches.  The crown, throne, silverware all too big.  More significantly, it was “hard to be regal when everyone could see the top of your head,” she says, but Lord Melbourne tells her she’s “every inch a queen.”  He’s wonderfully steadfast in these lovely proclamations about her “natural dignity.” (“There was something regal about the resolute tilt of her head and the steady pace at which she walked.”)

Those early years enlighten us to the origins of Victoria’s feisty, independent spirit, which propelled her resolve through a rocky period of inexperience, unsureness, scandals, and crises.  Her determination is seen, for instance, in her tough treatment of her controlling mother and of her mother’s odious, jockeying-for-power confidante, Sir John Conway.

Those two princess years, depicted in a Prologue, reveal a very lonely girl, overly protected, isolated, and friendless, so much so her upbringing is termed the “Kensington System.” Resentment towards her mother, Duchess of Kent, formerly a German princess, and her deceitful Comptroller and advisor, Conway, come to fruition the moment Victoria becomes “Her Majesty the Queen.”  She’s overcome by the “thrill in being able to do what she pleases,” which she does when it comes to both of them.  Bright spots in Drina’s (a pet name) childhood were her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen, and attachment to her spaniel, Dash.  Both play meaningful roles when Victoria is anointed Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.  Those first two monarch years encompass around 400 pages, flowing in short chapters divided into Books 1 through 4.

Yet, googling to get a sense of the breadth and happenings during the span of Victoria’s lengthy sovereignty, I found other curious historical facts that could have been featured in a novel on the monarch, such as six attempted assassinations and mothering nine children who married other European royals, producing 37 great-grandchildren and the nickname “grandmother of Europe.”  The source and inspiration for the novel were Victoria’s diaries: 62 million words!  Obviously, an extraordinary amount of material.  Since Victoria was a pleasure to read, seems the novelist made a smart decision.

It’s also a perfect time to read Victoria, before PBS Masterpiece Theater airs Victoria, an eight-part miniseries, in January 2017 in the same Sunday night timeslot as Downton Abbey.  Goodwin also wrote the screenplay.  Her interests and talent for creating rich-in-historical details fiction and film surely stem, in part, from her study of history at Cambridge University and film production at Columbia University as a Harkness Fellow.

The novel offers insight into how British government and royalty works – befuddling rules of succession, the “delicate relationship between Monarch and Parliament,” protocol, ceremonial duties, charity obligations, and the like.

At times, I longed for a royalty/family tree as there’s a multitude of royal and non-hereditary characters to keep track of, some good but many awfully ambitious and conspiring with their own political agendas, which seems ordained by laws and a class system bound by rules and expectations.  You will, though, keep the most important, influential ones clear in your mind as the author brings them to life.

Still, I thought readers might welcome a few images, below, of some key characters who were historical figures in this expansive period in British life that came to be known as the Victorian era.  This allows me to not give much away, yet perhaps gives you a glimpse into the people and setting the author immerses us in.  In short, this is not a light summer read.  Rather, it’s a meticulously rendered, historically intriguing one.

Victoria broke the longest period I’ve gone without blogging.  Characterized by too many dark, depressing, angry books, plots and prose I couldn’t praise as enchanted.  Some were page-turners, others I couldn’t finish.  Is this also a reflection of the times?

Another reason to read this novel now.  Yes, there was unrest, cutthroat machinations, and wrongdoings.  But there was also grace under enormous pressure and odds, courage, benevolence, and a refreshing allegiance to country told keenly and in uplifting prose.  A gift for all of us this holiday season.  Lorraine

Young Queen and her beloved dog Dash

Lord Melbourne, P.M., Private Secretary, Confidante, Companion

Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, widowed

Sir John Conroy, nefarious advisor to the Queen’s mother

Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, an admirer of the Queen

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, son of Queen Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, therefore Victoria’s cousin, whom Leopold burns for the young Queen to marry

 

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Behind Closed Doors 1

A man, a marriage too perfect – BEWARE! (Spring Eaton, twenty miles outside London, present-day): I hadn’t expected to be drawn into Behind Closed Doors, a UK bestseller destined for the movies. I don’t like the thriller genre largely because it’s driven by plot not prose. Two months ago, I discovered a psychologically suspenseful novel with exceptionally good prose, so I’ve been open to reading more. Often disappointed by publishing hype, this psychological thriller’s hype rings true. “Unputdownable” rings so true I must warn you if you read this novel at night you might have trouble sleeping. It’s that psychologically jarring. Also true is the praise that it’s “incredibly well-written,” which brings me to why I’m blogging about it, why I got so caught up in it.

The narrator’s voice – Grace, married 18 months ago to a lawyer who never lost a case and resembles George Clooney – flows so effortlessly it feels as if she’s sitting by your side confiding her worst fears and opening up her good heart to you. Jack Angel – a surname he chose, a sadistic joke! – doesn’t have a heart, even though he’s “superficially charming” and can “strike observers as remarkably normal,” to quote one definition of a psychopath.

So, this isn’t a novel that just grips you at the opening; every page grips you. For you’re trying to figure out if someone could be this deranged and this clever to deceive not only your fiancé but everyone. You will be impressed by the intricate web of plausible deceit Jack – and British debut novelist B. A. Paris – have spun throughout. Which is why the novel scares us. Could this really happen in a marriage that seems so perfect to anyone looking in? Could a man so perfectly handsome, elegant, and gentlemanly be this emotionally sick to do what Jack does to Grace and has planned?

Leaving nothing to chance, he gives nothing away until the perfect woman comes along to execute his long-seated madness. He snaps her up in a matter of months. By the time he unveils enough of himself to her it’s too late, for he’s made sure there’s no escape.

The word perfect is effectively used, repeatedly. Perfect first appears on line 5 of the first chapter, titled “Present.” All chapters take place in the Present or Past, a clean design that has us glued to the deft and twisted machinations Jack frames, continually boxing Grace in.

Jack is the first to pronounce the word “perfect,” a response placed right on page 1 so we’re hooked, clued in something’s definitely not perfect in this household. Grace has accidently knocked into a bottle of champagne in the kitchen while dinner guests are in another room. She’s “hoping he [Jack] won’t have noticed how nervous I am.” Jack does, of course, because as we’ve already established, he doesn’t miss a trick. Why should a loving husband be pleased his newly married wife is anxious?

The dinner guests are two couples: Diane and Adam (he hailing from Jack’s law firm) and Esther and Rufus, new to the neighborhood and the group, emphasizing these are not Grace’s close friends. The dinner scene introduces the second, third, fourth, and fifth time the word perfect appears, with reference to Esther:

“I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect lie.”

Hmm. By page 2 it’s confirmed: something’s horribly amiss!

The strongest word for the extreme opposite of perfect – nightmare, psychological torture, hell – depicts Grace’s predicament and husband. Worse, Jack is so frighteningly “brilliant” and cruel the only person who knows the marriage is a horrific lie is Grace. She finds that out on her wedding night in Thailand, revealed around page 85. That’s when it hits us Jack is clearly not who he purports himself to be. Grace is not only far from home, she’s far, far away from being “the luckiest person in the world.” Tragically, Jack’s old-fashioned manners and handsomeness wooed her. “He made me feel special, cherished, and best of all, he adored Millie.”

Millie is Grace’s younger sister, born with Down’s syndrome. Her parents didn’t want any children, let alone Millie. So when Grace meets Jack in a park when she’s with Millie and he dances with Millie, Grace falls under his wicked spell. Jack is awfully accepting of Millie, too willing to offer that when Millie turns 18 she can come live with the newlyweds. Jack knows Grace has promised she’ll take care of Millie after she’s finished her mainstream schooling (with a constant caregiver, Janice), which Grace fought hard for so Millie is never institutionalized. Up until now, it’s the reason Grace hasn’t had a serious suitor. Millie will be graduating soon. The clock is ticking.

You can’t help but admire Grace’s deep love and devotion for Millie. She grew up taking care of her. Their bond is beautiful: “I love Millie more than life itself and wouldn’t change her for the world.” It’s one of the few aspects of Grace’s story that’s beautiful.

Another could be their home which appears to be gorgeous until you get behind closed doors. Jack gave the home to Grace as a wedding present. They’d talked about her dream home, but it didn’t include being outfitted with two sets of metal gates, hidden by “high walls around it so nobody can see in.” Set in a fictional village that sounds a lot like a real village that appeals to Grace is a perfect façade. Apparently, Surrey is located in England’s wealthiest county, so Hollywood-type seclusion wouldn’t raise any red flags.

Then again, Jack has made sure there’s no one on the lookout to be suspicious. For starters, Grace’s parents will soon be moving to New Zealand. Perfect. Jack insisted Grace quit her job with the lavish Harrod’s department store. Travel requirements, he reasoned, wouldn’t be good for a fledgling marriage. She’s a fruit buyer, travels to South America. Who gives up an interesting job like that so easily? Grace, because of Millie. Perfect. Jack’s even offered to pay for Millie’s expenses until Millie comes to live with them, so why should Grace work?

Meanwhile, early on Grace allows Jack to take away her cell phone. Quickly, she loses touch with two good friends. She’s so gullible and unsuspecting because Jack is so “meticulous” in setting up that perfect lie. Losing friends, family, job, and communications would unnerve us. Not Grace, at first. She’s so focused on Millie’s welfare she loses track of her own. Maybe that seems implausible but if you’ve spent your entire life putting someone else’s needs above your own the pattern is fixed. As we put ourselves in Grace’s shoes, we see how she got herself into this nightmare, how she is Jack’s perfect wife. 

One thing you’ll love about the developmentally challenged Millie character is that she’s quite perceptive. By page 23, you sense it’s Millie who will give Grace her extraordinary “resolve.”

Can Grace extract herself from this nightmare? Before Millie becomes a victim too? How? This is what keeps us turning pages, perhaps late into the night.

Lorraine

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Miss Jane 2

Born Different and Special (Mercury, Mississippi, 1915-early 70s): BRAVE is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane. Brave girl/brave woman, bravely written, bravely published. For it’s the fictionalized story of a Mississippi farm girl born in the early 20th century with a rare, life-altering anatomical condition that’s uncomfortable to read about, inspired by the true case of the author’s great-aunt Jane. Our Jane is a “strange and beautiful child, big eyes so expressive, as if wiser or more knowing than possible.”

HEART-BREAKING is the second word that comes to mind because when your bodily and sexual functions are significantly abnormal and medical science is not advanced enough to repair those abnormalities – so different than everyone else (reportedly 1 in 20,000 are born with the condition) – engaging in normal activities and relationships is an enormous, nearly impossible mountain to climb – school, friendships, boyfriends, intimacy. So this is a SAD story about Jane’s childhood and womanhood that, for the most part, feels painfully lonely, heavy-hearted. And yet, Jane’s not mired in sadness or bitterness. Her inner strength is a gift to all of us struggling with something.

Jane’s spirit contrasts with her chronically bereft mother, her downtrodden father, and the coolness of her sister, who grew to love her because “I have to love something” – though each has their own reasons to be justifiably melancholy.

Jane’s was the home of a hard-working farm life, through the years of the Depression, in which an uncharacteristic hug from her father “sent her senses singing.” Fortunately for her, she took to farming and loved roaming the woods on the property. So, she was a “good-humored, even cheerful little child” who matured into a self-sufficient woman of remarkable acceptance of her lot in life. Miraculous, given her childhood was marked by no friends, embarrassment (diapering, soiling), and so many sacrifices. A bright child, she tried to go to school but it was untenable. Instead, she learned math helping in her father’s general store and was pleasant with the customers, mostly sharecroppers and tenants who worked the farm, which grew cotton, tobacco, corn, pecans and raised some cattle and pigs.

Watson’s prose is sensitive yet unsentimental. He’s not afraid to describe the harsh realities of Jane’s physicality – although you don’t learn of the precise medical term for Jane Chisolm’s condition until page 199. It doesn’t matter. The point is to be drawn into what Jane went through day after day, year after year, for the rest of her life. The slower pace of the novel suits the heaviness of her circumstances.

As the heavy burden of Jane’s daily living grows on us – the lengths she goes through (starving and dehydrating herself, wearing layers of slips and perfume) – we’re awed by her amazing grace. Grace is a word used often in the novel. Her sister’s name is Grace; a chapter is titled Grace in the Wilderness; and Jane “moved with a kind of natural grace, as a leaf will fall gracefully from a tree in barely a breeze.” Grace is a perfect word for the beauty, dignity, and spirituality Jane evokes for life, particularly when she loses herself in nature.

“She loved most being in the woods, with the diffused light and the quiet there. Such a stillness, with just the pecking of ground birds and forest animals, the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels playing up and down a tree. The silent, imperceptible unfurling of spring buds into blossom. She felt comfortable there. As if nothing could be unnatural in that place, within but apart from the world.”

Two characters who touch Jane’s isolated world magnify that grace:

  • Jane’s doctor, Ed Thompson, who lives two miles from the family farm. His relationship with Jane deepens over the years, medically of course and then emotionally as he comes to care about her like his own daughter. He’s childless and for much of the novel a widower.
  • A tender, sixteen-year-old boy with blue eyes like Jane’s, Elijah Key. His self-consciousness about wearing eyeglasses almost startles us compared to what Jane endures, reminding us that how we perceive ourselves and accept our own imperfections impacts us greatly. Theirs is a brief interlude (so is her flirting with boys at a dance hall at sixteen) that offers respites of joy.

In a less eloquent way, we’re also moved by Jane’s increasingly alcoholic father who quietly feels remorseful and guilty believing it was his alcoholic transgressions that cursed his beautiful child. Jane was the last of five children, conceived late in her mother Ida’s life. By then, she’d lost two boys to illness, and her two older sons had already left home and are barely a presence. Jane’s sister also couldn’t wait to escape into town, initially working as a seamstress. For a number of years, Jane lived with her; she too could sew. Mercury, the town, is also the setting for another of the author’s novels, The Heaven of Mercury, a finalist for the National Book Award.

The heart-tugging and philosophical power of the novel asks us to dig deeply about the meaning of love. What Jane and Elijah had was pure love – not physical love but a love that transcended that. A love more extraordinary.

So another word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane is UNFORGETTABLE.

Lorraine

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Lions 2

Legacies and Folklore – Ghosts of the Past (Colorado Eastern Plains, present-day): Poetic. That’s the first word that comes to mind reading Lions. Eloquent, melancholy, atmospheric prose that even makes welding sound beautiful. It pulls you in at the opening sentence: “If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know there’s a ghost in everything.” Actually, many ghosts haunt this mesmerizing novel about broken dreams and promises, grief and loneliness, in a “living ghost town.”

Even the town’s name is mythical, passed down through generations of pioneers who settled in the high desert plains of eastern Colorado:

“A name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it has been first imagined … There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass … Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it.”

That sky is colored “heartbreak blue.” For this is a novel about all sorts of heartbreak in a ghostly landscape, with a one street downtown and a handful of businesses: garage, diner, bar, gas/grocer, and junk shop.

Still, 117 souls hung on in Lions. Why have they stayed?

Chief among those enduring souls – characters who’ll touch your heart and are at the heart of this soulful novel – are:

  • John Walker, 55, “wizard” welder, Georgianna his wife of more than twenty years, and their very serious, reserved eighteen-year-old son, Gordon, deeply attached to his father; and
  • Leigh Ransom, Gordon’s girlfriend/best friend/neighbor/the only person in Lions his age and his going-off-to-the-same-college partner in the fall; and her mother May who owns the Lucy Graves diner (named after a fabled, reclusive 1870 homesteader) where Leigh works.

Lucy Graves is one of the ghostly tales woven around the main plot. “People say they want the truth but they don’t. They want a story.” A story you get. Many, actually. Some real, some the stuff of legends. That’s because Lions is an allegorical place.

Lions could be someplace near Longmont or Ft. Collins, sites of the first sugar beet factories in the eastern part of the State built in the early 1900s when sugar was Colorado’s economic driver. I’m guessing this based on literary scenes of an abandoned sugar beet factory and the author’s acknowledgements hinting at that.

Hundreds of ghost towns are scattered throughout the West, echoes of the immigrants, Easterners, and dreamers who came westward “looking for paradise.” Some hit gold. This region’s version is the sugar beet, dubbed “white gold”. That term speaks volumes for a bountiful ecosystem, when Lions sat on the “westernmost edge of fertile prairie grassland.” Googling, I learned there are only a few places in the world that have the ideal growing conditions to sustain the sugar beet crop. Lions once did. Its soil was so loamy it was “the consistency of dense chocolate cake.” Now it’s “pale dirt so hard and dry it was no more fertile than moon rock.” The loss of this complex, precious ecosphere is a different type of heartbreak.

Leigh’s heartache is the emotional kind. “You could have called it despair, or panic, or desperation to get out.” She speaks often about an “unbearable light” that’s “refracted, diffused, reflected, and smashed and split apart.” When she gazes out her window all she sees is “a place of air and light and rock.” The allusive prose helps us imagine that sense of burning, boundless isolation.

A “photographer of isolation,” Dave Heath, recently passed away. His photographs made me realize that the only thing missing from this soaring novel are pictures of the faces of the really good souls who inhabit Lions. Are years and years of dashed hopes and barrenness etched on their faces? What does toughness and resilience look like? “Staying power,” the author calls it.

This is a way of life that’s “genius born of necessity.” Groceries, for example, arrive only monthly. So, at the diner, May serves odd concoctions of sandwiches like ham and grape jelly.

The greatest genius is the welder John Walker. The novel opens when a mysterious stranger and his dog show up one “record-breaking hot summer.” That’s 106 degrees in June, when welding means John covers his body in his sweltering garage to protect himself from the scorching blowtorch. With “myopic ceremony” he toils for hours because “people’s lives depend on a good weld.” Where does that kind of decency come from?

The stranger’s visit sets off a cascade of tragic events. The first, saddest, most consequential is John’s death. What will happen to his “first-class weld servicing facility”? Will Gordon takeover, thereby forfeit Leigh’s escape hatch and plans of going to college with him? Leigh has lost a father figure. Will she lose Gordon too? Can Gordon leave his mother, Georgie, dreamy and fragile? Much of the moody prose feels dream-like.

And yet it also conveys deep respect for something as real as metalworking – “agricultural equipment innovators and repairmen.” Thus, the novel pays tribute to our early frontier ancestors who weren’t cowboys or ranchers or farmers or miners or hunters or trappers. John’s work ethic puzzled the denizens the most. “Could have made six figures in Denver easy. Aerospace. Military. Hell. Lots of natural gas pipeline getting started in Wyoming.”

In the case of the Walker family, welding traces back more than a century, which means Lions is a novel illuminating “patterns to things.” Will Gordon feel the tug of responsibility and duty to carry on that familial tradition, or be the one to finally break it? Leigh, on the other hand, is counting the days and her savings until she can fly. “She wants the world.” Does she get it?

The townspeople believe the town is cursed. After John’s death, there’s an ugly, strange death, people get sick from the water, and then flee in numbers. (“Goodbyes didn’t come singly.”) Gordon begins disappearing for days on end, on a mysterious errand up North his father asked him to carry on before he died, the same deed John had been performing for thirty-five years. At some point, you may asking yourself if John really did play some divine role in “holding the town together by keeping the demon out.”

Whatever you believe about the events and stories supposed in Lions, one truth I’m pretty sure you’re nostalgic for is the old-fashioned code of simple human kindness represented. Nothing simple about it when times are tough. Which is why Lions move us so much. It represents the best in us.

Lorraine

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Amy Snow

How far will you go for friendship?  A secret? (Enderby to London to Twickenham to Bath to York England; early Victorian era, 1831–1848)

Amy Snow is a joy to read.  For all its length (576 pages, includes reader’s guide and author interview), its charming classical prose, Victorian delights, “meadows and market gardens and mansions that dream away their days,” and clipped chapters make for fast-paced reading you’re sorry ends.

Joyful too is how the novel found its way to us.  Winner of the first Richard and Judy “Search for a Bestseller” competition in the UK, their book club influential like Oprah’s.

Its seriousness is disguised in the elegant prose.  For it’s not only the story of the depths of friendship between two young women from vastly different social classes, but poignantly depicts the expectations for women in early Victorian society.  The time period is perfectly aligned historically to Queen Victoria’s assumption to power, which eventually led to challenging prevailing attitudes about “The Woman Question.”

The plot, which takes many twists and turns, centers around a spirited, eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway who discovers an abandoned baby in the snow on the grounds of her family’s Surrey estate.  She names her “snow baby” Amy Snow.  The novel ends after Amy has been led on a clever “treasure hunt” commandeered by Aurelia through a series of letters and cryptic clues, wiser and worldlier than her seventeen orphaned years.

Aurelia comes alive for us only in Amy’s fond memories and her letters, having penned them on her deathbed.  The novel opens when she’s died at 25, not much younger than the Queen herself.

Queen Victoria, 1842
Franz Xaver Winterhalter
via Wikimedia Commons

Aurelia may have had a weak heart but hers was a “passionate heart” – an independent, intellectually-minded young woman who loved “philosophy, literature, economics, and politics.”  She might have been “considered a humanitarian visionary” if only she was born a man.  Her family tried to mold her rebellious, “bluestocking” nature, marry her off for obligation not love, but her deteriorating health ended all that.

She died with a secret she goes to extraordinary lengths to protect and share with the person she trusts the most, Amy.  She’ll only reveal it piecemeal, determined to keep her parents, Lord and Lady Celestina, in the dark for their coldness towards their only child reflects, at least in part, their grave disappointment at not bearing an heir.  Until Amy, Aurelia was a very lonely child.  She describes her parents as:

“People for whom love was a complicated affair, very closely bound up with, and easily confused with, matters of proprietorship, duty, and control.”

There’s not much to like about Aurelia’s mother, although she did let Aurelia keep the baby.  Still, she couldn’t be bothered with Amy at all, couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with her.  So Amy’s infancy was spent in a busy kitchen underfoot Cook.  Think Miss Patmore of Downton Abbey: “big-hearted, capable, and almost always there.”  As Amy grew and got more in the way, you could find her in the wheelbarrow of the gardener Robin; or in the hay of the stables under Benjamin; or tagging along Jesketh, the elderly butler.  Amy, then, knows how “to hold a currycomb and groom a horse,” “sort through apples,” and adores gardens.  When she gets older, she lives in the scullery.  Aurelia reads to her; shares her love of literature (especially Dickens, often quoted); teaches her to play piano and cards – cultures her devoted companion.

This all matters because Aurelia has great plans for Amy (“secrets and adventures.”)  The first journey takes off when the novel opens at the reading of Aurelia’s will, which means now there’s no place on the estate Amy can live.  She’s “accustomed to feeling like an inconvenience,” but without Amy she now aches for a true “sense of belonging.”

But Aurelia has other intentions for her beloved, sisterly friend:

“I have planned for my story to unfold just a little at a time, with every letter taking you farther from Hatville, farther from the ignominy of your treatment there; safer and stronger and freer.  By the fourth or fifth letter, the trail will long have run out for anyone else.  No one knows me as well as you dear.”

While I can’t reveal the clues and contents of the letters – after all this is your adventure too! – let me share a bit of what awaits you:

Letter 1 sends a grieving, unworldly Amy off to London to Entwhistle’s bookshop, where Letter 2 awaits, hidden.  She travels to a “London that demands to be taken seriously” via the miracle of steam locomotives, this being the beginning of Britain’s “Railway Age.” Leaving the bookshop, she briefly encounters the proprietor’s handsome grandson, Henry.

Letter 2 takes Amy to the village of Twickenham, as charming as its name.  Thanks to Aurelia, she’s stays at the Mulberry Lodge with three generations of the warmhearted Wister family “brimming over with good feeling.”  Waiting for Amy is a trunk Aurelia stuffed with exquisite clothes to “try to feel yourself a young woman of privilege.  The clothes will help.”  Amy is, of course, stunned and moved by all the ball gowns, in colors suitable and daring, along with “tulle purses stuffed with money.”

Here she meets Henry again, and another handsome man, Quentin, two very different men.  Garland is “polished, polite, and poised,” an impeccable dresser, whereas Henry is “all rumpled curls and sprawling limbs.”  Quentin “dazzles,” but its Henry who “warmed my heart.”  As we get to know both – Henry far more easily and likeably for he shows his tender emotions versus stuffy, “self-contained” Quentin, we see these characters are meant to symbolize two very different perspectives of a woman’s societal place, and the meaning of love.

Aurelia’s plan for Amy is becoming clearer.  She wants her to have “the wardrobe and fortune of a grand lady” to open doors for experiences and choices she wasn’t born into, never had, or dreamed of ever having.  What path does she choose?

Letter 3 takes Amy to Bath.  This time she’s pained to leave behind feelings of family and happiness, but she must find the resolve for Aurelia.  The ancient city brings a dramatic turn for here she’s to stay with Mrs. Ariadne Riverthorpe, a hardened, all-mighty 80-year old with a biting tongue and a mind of her own.  As the story evolves, you’ll see she’s something else too, something that gets to the heart of the story.

Lovely prose charms us with descriptions of gardens as “earth and apples,” earth as “rainbow and raindrop,” stables as “dust and gleaming.”  If we squint real hard, we can see the snowdrops, “daisied grass,” “whirling skirts,” “brush of ladybirds,” we can taste the tipsy cake, and hear York’s minister bells.

The wonder of historical fiction is to authentically transport us in time and place.  Tracy Rees beautifully evokes an “elegant and flawless at face value” British Victorian society.  With the same finesse, she shows us how “bumpy and biting behind the façade” that society could be.

Lorraine

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