Yet another new historical fiction novel with a colourful, eye-catching cover! This one looks like an illuminated manuscript, which is quite appropriate, not just because of the title but also because our heroine, Ursula Flight, has a deep love of books, language and the written word.
Ursula is born in December 1664, on the same night that a great comet appears in the sky. It is believed to be an ill omen, bringing with it bad luck and disaster, but for Ursula’s father this is a time to rejoice and to thank God for the safe delivery of his daughter. As Ursula grows into an intelligent and curious young woman, he decides to educate her himself, sharing with her his knowledge of astronomy, Latin and Greek, mathematics, science and literature. At the age of fifteen, however, everything changes: Ursula is married off to the wealthy Lord Tyringham, who is much older and who has different ideas of how a woman should behave.
It is not a happy, loving marriage, but Ursula is able to find solace in her writing – or her scribbling, as her friends call it – and this provides a way for her to express herself and to cope with the difficulties she encounters in her new life. There is nothing she wants more than to write plays and see them performed on stage but, despite her talent and enthusiasm, Ursula will find that this is still very much a man’s world.
Things do not always go smoothly for Ursula and she faces a series of challenges, obstacles, trials and disappointments both in her personal life and in her attempts to establish a career for herself. Told in a different way, it could have been a rather depressing story, but Ursula’s narrative voice is so strong and warm and witty that the novel never becomes too dark. Her sparkling personality suits the lively writing style and the imaginative format of the book.
I am not always a fan of novels that are written in an unusual or unconventional way, but I could still admire the playfulness and creativity of Ursula Flight. Chapters are given titles like In which I am born under inauspicious circumstances and In which I assert my independence at three years old, while Ursula’s narrative is interspersed with other examples of her writing: letters and lists, diary entries, personal notes to herself, definitions of words and even whole scenes from some of her plays. These all provide us with valuable insights into her state of mind or way of life, while also being quite funny at times; I expect Ursula found that writing about certain episodes of her life in this way made it easier to deal with them.
The Illumination of Ursula Flight is an entertaining read; it’s maybe a little bit lighter than I would have preferred, but it’s fun and different. I would probably recommend it to people who have enjoyed books like Dark Aemilia, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Restoration.
Thanks to Atlantic Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.