Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

I enjoyed Gill Hornby’s previous novel, Miss Austen, about the life of Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra. Her new one, Godmersham Park, is also inspired by the Austens, telling the story of Anne Sharp, who became one of Jane’s closest friends after taking up the position of governess to her niece, Fanny.

We first meet Anne in 1804 on the day of her arrival at Godmersham Park, the estate in Kent that is home to Edward Austen Knight, his wife Elizabeth and their many children. (If you’re in the UK and have a current £10 note to hand, Godmersham Park is the house depicted on the back beside the portrait of Jane Austen). At thirty-one years old, Anne has no experience of teaching or caring for children, but following the death of her mother she has found herself in need of employment and somewhere to live. This change of circumstances comes as a shock to Anne and it takes her a while to settle into her new job and way of life.

When Anne’s eleven-year-old charge, Fanny, shows her the letters she has been receiving from her Aunt Jane (yes, that Jane), Anne finds them charming and immediately decides that Jane is her ‘favourite Austen’. Anne will have to wait a long time for her chance to meet this mysterious letter-writer, but first she makes the acquaintance of another Austen – Jane and Edward’s brother Henry, who comes to stay at Godmersham Park and quickly befriends the new governess.

This is a lovely novel and, like Miss Austen, although it doesn’t self-consciously try to recreate the style of Jane Austen’s work, the language still transports you back to the early years of the 19th century. There are no glaring anachronisms that I noticed and it even feels like the sort of story Austen herself could have written. The pace is slow and apart from a subplot involving a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Anne’s father, nothing very dramatic happens, yet I was drawn in by the characters and the setting and found it quite absorbing. It was particularly interesting to read about Anne’s experience of working as a governess and how she struggled to find her place within the household, not being fully accepted either as one of the family or one of the servants.

The novel is inspired by the diaries kept by Fanny Austen Knight, letters exchanged between Anne Sharp and Jane and Cassandra Austen, and a first edition of Emma that Jane signed for Anne. All of these things add to our knowledge of Anne’s life and personality and provide evidence of her close friendship with Jane Austen. However, almost nothing is known of Anne’s background before she arrived at Godmersham Park and Gill Hornby explains in her author’s note that she had to use her imagination to create a backstory for Anne. The overall result is a convincing blend of fact and fiction, which I really enjoyed.

Thanks to Century for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 6/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 31/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth

When the audience take their seats at Crillick’s Variety Theatre looking forward to an evening of entertainment featuring the Great Amazonia, a ‘savage queen’ captured in Africa, little do they know the act is a fraud. The ‘Great Amazonia’ is actually Zillah, a young mixed-race Londoner who has never been to Africa in her life. Zillah can see nothing wrong with what she is doing; she enjoys being the headline act, she’s being paid for her work and she’s making some powerful new friends, among them Vincent, Viscount Woodward, who is setting her up as his mistress. It’s not until she meets Lucien Winters, an African merchant and former slave, that she begins to question her actions and wonder whether there is a better life she could be leading.

Then, her manager Marcus Crillick unveils a new act – the ‘Leopard Lady’ – and Zillah’s eyes are opened to the full extent of Crillick’s cruelty and the way she and others are being exploited for financial gain. When the Leopard Lady goes missing, Zillah becomes convinced that she is being held captive somewhere and sets out to search for her – a search that will take her across Victorian London, from the bustling dockyards to the slums of St Giles and the elegant parlours of the upper classes. Meanwhile Zillah must choose between Vincent and Lucien and decide how she wants her future to unfold.

I enjoyed Theatre of Marvels, although it did seem very similiar at first to Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders, another novel about the exploitation of ‘circus attractions’. However, this one is written from a very different perspective, allowing Lianne Dillsworth to explore different themes such as racial and class inequality and slavery. The thousands of black and mixed race people who lived in Victorian London are often ignored in fiction set in that period, but Dillsworth gives them a voice here through the characters of Zillah, Lucien and others. Zillah is a particularly interesting heroine as she is clearly struggling with her identity throughout the novel, feeling that she doesn’t truly fit in with one community or the other and trying to decide who she is and what she wants.

Although I felt that some of the characters, particularly the villain Marcus Crillick and Zillah’s friend and rival Ellen, were too thinly drawn, there were others I found much more interesting. I was intrigued by Vincent Woodward, as there were times when I thought he must genuinely care about Zillah, but I doubted from the beginning that he would have the courage to defy convention and commit to a future with her. I could only see their relationship ending unhappily. On the other hand, Lucien seemed to have a deeper understanding of Zillah and much more personal integrity, yet I never really managed to warm to him. However, I thought I had predicted how the story would end and was taken by surprise because it wasn’t quite what I’d expected!

While I would have liked to have seen more of the Leopard Lady and to have heard some of her story from her own point of view, I did enjoy getting to know Zillah. This was an absorbing and surprisingly quick read and I’ll be looking out for more books from Lianne Dillsworth.

Theatre of Marvels is published in the UK on Thursday 28th April 2022. Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 19/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

This is also my contribution to Reading the Theatre 2022 hosted by Lory of Entering the Enchanted Castle.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

This fascinating new novel by Karen Joy Fowler tells the story, in fictional form, of the Booths, the 19th century theatrical family who produced two of America’s most acclaimed actors, as well as one infamous killer – John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Although John Wilkes is, unfortunately, the best known Booth and probably the reason many readers will be drawn to this novel – to find out more about his background and what drove him to commit such a terrible crime – this is not just his story. In fact, he plays no bigger a part in it than several of the other Booths. For much of the first half of the book, the focus is on his father, the Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, who will have an important influence on the lives of each of his children – despite the fact that they rarely see him, as he spends so much time away on tour while the family stay at home on their farm near Baltimore.

Junius Brutus is a talented and successful stage actor, but as the years go by his alcoholism and eccentric behaviour make him increasingly unreliable, damaging his reputation and his financial situation. Still, he remains the centre of his children’s lives, and when three of his sons – Junius Jr (or June), Edwin and John Wilkes – follow in his footsteps and become actors themselves, they face a lifelong battle to avoid comparisons with him and with each other. It is Edwin who emerges from his father’s shadow to become one of the leading actors of his time and it is from Edwin’s perspective that we see part of the story unfold.

There are also two Booth daughters who survive to adulthood, Rosalie and Asia – and these are the other characters whose perspectives we see throughout the novel. Rosalie is the eldest and her viewpoint is particularly important early in the novel as she has experiences and memories that her younger siblings do not. As Rosalie grows into a sensitive woman who remains unmarried and close to her mother, she becomes known to the family as ‘poor Rosalie’, a sad and slightly tragic figure. Her younger sister Asia, a stronger personality who will become an author later in life, also offers some interesting insights into the dynamics of the Booth family; she has good relationships with both Edwin and John and feels caught in the middle as tensions begin to grow between the two brothers.

The murder of Abraham Lincoln doesn’t take place until near the end of the novel and there’s not much time left after that to explore the impact this terrible event has on the rest of the Booth family. Neither are we given any real answers as to what went wrong with John Wilkes Booth and what led him to carry out the assassination. It’s hard to say why, coming from a family who were loyal to the Union and largely anti-slavery, it is only John who ends up supporting the Confederacy and opposing abolition. All we can do is make our own assessment based on the information we are given, through the eyes of his siblings, about his childhood, his relationships, his education and his political views.

The novel has clearly been thoroughly researched (although in her author’s note, Karen Joy Fowler explains that as there’s very little information available on Rosalie Booth, it was necessary to use her imagination to fill in the gaps where Rosalie’s character is concerned). However, the book is incredibly detailed and this does slow the plot down a lot, particularly in the middle. We are also given some biographical information on Abraham Lincoln himself and on the events that lead to the Civil War and his presidency. These sections are interspersed with the Rosalie, Edwin and Asia chapters and are presented as non-fiction, which I didn’t really like as I felt it disrupted the flow of the story.

Despite the negative points I’ve just mentioned, I loved this novel. Even the use of present tense and heavy foreshadowing didn’t put me off. I enjoyed learning about a group of historical figures I’d previously known almost nothing about – I particularly liked the parts about the colourful theatrical careers of Edwin and Junius Brutus – and every time I picked the book up I looked forward to finding out what would happen to the family next. I haven’t read anything else by Karen Joy Fowler, not even We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but having enjoyed this book so much I’ll consider reading some of her others now.

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 13/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils

Translated by Liesl Schillinger

As a fan of the elder Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and many more, I thought it was time I tried the work of his son, Alexandre Dumas fils. His 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias – often published in English as The Lady of the Camellias or Camille – was on my Classics Club list and when the Club announced another of their ‘dares’ this February (“Simply read a classic book from your #CClist that you classify as romantic, glamorous, sexy or alluring. It could even be a book or author that you are predisposed to love”) I thought this would be a good opportunity to read it!

The lady of the title is Marguerite Gautier, a Parisian courtesan or ‘kept woman’, who is the mistress of several men including a wealthy duke. Her nickname comes from the fact that she is rarely seen without a bouquet of camellias, red on the days of the month when she is unavailable to her lovers, white when she is free again. One evening at the opera, she catches the attention of a young man called Armand Duval. Armand becomes obsessed with Marguerite and although she informs him that he isn’t rich enough to maintain her extravagant lifestyle, he is determined to become her only lover and put an end to her involvement with other men.

We know from the beginning of the novel that Marguerite will die of consumption (tuberculosis), that she will be in debt at the time of her death and that her possessions will be sold at auction. It’s at this auction that our unnamed narrator buys a book belonging to Marguerite with an inscription by Armand Duval. The purchase of the book leads to a meeting between Armand and the narrator during which Armand tells him the tragic story of his relationship with Marguerite.

Despite knowing that the story was not going to end happily and despite not particularly liking either Armand or Marguerite, I still found The Lady of the Camellias quite gripping and difficult to put down. It’s also beautifully written (and beautifully translated from the original French by Liesl Schillinger in the Penguin Classics edition I read). Although I prefer the style of Dumas père, it’s worth remembering that Dumas fils was only twenty-three years old when he wrote this book, basing it on his own relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis, which probably explains the immaturity of the young Armand Duval in the novel.

After falling in love at first sight, in the way only characters in 19th century novels do, and before even getting to know Marguerite, Armand decides that he must ‘possess’ her – and then, once he has her, doesn’t trust her and fails to understand or appreciate the sacrifices she is making for him. My sympathies lay much more with Marguerite, although it took me a long time to warm to her. I think it would have helped if we had been given more information on her background, to explain why she was so obsessed with money and jewels and how she had come to live the frivolous life she was leading. Still, her story is very sad and a good example of double standards between men and women.

If you think this story sounds familiar, it has been adapted many times for stage and screen and was the inspiration for Verdi’s opera La traviata and the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

This is book 27/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second novel. Her first, The Witchfinder’s Sister, was a fascinating historical novel set during the Manningtree witch trials of 1645; this new book sounded very different, but I still wanted to give it a try.

The novel opens in 1918, with Ivy Boscawen trying to come to terms with the death of her son, Tim, shot dead in the trenches of the Western Front. Ivy is desperate to know exactly what happened to Tim, but after speaking to some of his fellow soldiers what she discovers about her son’s death makes her feel even more distressed. Worse still, the loss of Tim triggers memories of another boy, William Tremain, who died thirty years earlier in a fire at the Great House in Polneath, Cornwall. Ivy, whose father was the Polneath doctor at the time, has been haunted by William’s tragic death ever since and has never been able to shake off her feelings of guilt about her actions in the aftermath of the fire.

With Ivy as the narrator, the novel moves back and forth in time between 1918 and 1888, gradually shedding light on the mysteries surrounding both deaths. Family secrets are uncovered, wills are read, inquests are held, clandestine meetings take place and identities are revealed – yet this is not really the exciting, suspenseful Gothic novel I had been hoping for. It moves along at a very slow pace and although I was enjoying it enough to want to read on to the end, I never felt fully engaged with either the plot or the characters.

There is an advantage to the slow pace, however, which is that it gives the reader a chance to try to solve some of the mysteries and guess some of the secrets before Ivy does. It’s a complex story, with lots of pieces that only begin to fall into place towards the end and there were points where I felt confused, particularly as the two timelines often seem to merge together. A chapter heading may indicate that we are in 1918, but after a few paragraphs Ivy starts to remember the events of 1888 again and it’s not always clear which period we are reading about. Also, the ‘key in the lock’ of the title turns out to be several keys to several locks in several doors and I struggled to keep track of the significance of them all.

I did like the atmosphere Beth Underdown creates and the attention to period detail; I never felt that the language or attitudes were too modern. She also writes very convincingly about Ivy’s grief for her lost son, her sense of guilt over what happened at the Great House, and the terrible misunderstandings and assumptions that have persisted for thirty years. It’s a very sad story, where lives are taken too early, acts of kindness go unappreciated until it’s almost too late and wicked deeds go unpunished for too long. An interesting read, but with a tighter focus I think it could have been a much better book.

Thanks to Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read this book.

This is book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Lily by Rose Tremain

From the opening pages of Rose Tremain’s new novel, we know that Lily Mortimer is a murderer and that she expects to hang for what she has done. What we don’t know is who the victim was and what drove a young woman like Lily to commit such a terrible crime. To find the answers we have to go back in time, to a cold winter’s night in 1850 when policeman Sam Trench finds a baby abandoned by the gates of a London park. Sam takes her to the London Foundling Hospital where she is given the name Lily and sent to live with a foster family in the countryside. This is only a temporary arrangement – children are expected to return to the Hospital once they reach the age of six – but Lily’s foster parents, Nellie and Perkin Buck, grow to love the little girl and they are all heartbroken when the time comes for them to separate.

Back at the Foundling Hospital, Lily feels trapped and unhappy; she and the other children are badly treated by the women who are employed to take care of them and Lily herself seems to be singled out for the worst punishments. As the years go by, Lily becomes an adult and starts work as a wigmaker at Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium – but even though she has left the orphanage behind, she is still haunted by the events of her childhood.

After being disappointed by Rose Tremain’s last book, Islands of Mercy, I found this a much more compelling read. It took me a while to get into it as the timeline jumped around so much at the beginning, constantly moving from Lily’s present to her past and back again, which felt disjointed and confusing – and the absence of chapter breaks didn’t help – but eventually things settled down and I was drawn into the story. There are shades of Jane Eyre, particularly in the parts of the book that deal with Lily’s relationship with another orphan, Bridget, and I was also reminded of Stacey Halls’ The Foundling, another novel set partly in the London Foundling Hospital (although this book has a very different plot).

The Hospital – also known as Coram, after its founder Thomas Coram – is vividly described and comes to life as a grim, forbidding place where the abandoned children are made to pay for the ‘sins of their mothers’. Although Lily is occasionally shown some kindness by people such as her benefactress Lady Elizabeth Mortimer, most of the treatment she receives at Coram is harsh and cruel. It seemed such a shame to me that the children weren’t allowed to stay with foster families who loved and wanted them, although I understood that the idea of returning them to the Hospital was so that they could learn the skills that would equip them for life in Victorian society.

This is a bleak novel, but also quite a moving one and despite knowing that Lily considered herself a criminal, I had a lot of sympathy for her from the beginning and hoped that her story would have a happier ending than the one she was expecting. I would recommend Lily not just to Rose Tremain’s existing fans, but also to anyone looking for a dark Victorian tale to immerse themselves in this winter.

Thanks to Vintage for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 49/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville

I’ve never read anything by Herman Melville – I know I should have read Moby Dick by now, but it has never sounded appealing to me – so when I spotted this new collection of Melville short stories from Pushkin Press it seemed a good opportunity to experience some of his work without having to commit to a 600+ page novel.

I Would Prefer Not To contains four stories, although the final one takes up more than half the book and is probably better described as a novella. My favourite was the first story, Bartleby the Scrivener, which was first published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853. The narrator is an elderly Wall Street lawyer who employs two clerks, or ‘scriveners’ – Turkey and Nippers – whose job is to make copies of legal documents, and one office boy, Ginger Nut. An increase in work leads the lawyer to look for a third scrivener and, as he has been having difficulties with the temperamental natures of the other two, he decides to hire Bartleby, a quiet man whom he hopes will be a good influence on the others.

At first Bartleby works hard at his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to proofread a copied document, he replies with, “I would prefer not to”. Over the following days, he refuses to do more and more of the tasks that are requested of him – never giving an angry or rude response; always just those same five words: “I would prefer not to”. As the lawyer decides how to deal with this unexpected problem, the reader wonders what is wrong with Bartleby and what has caused his unusual behaviour. I enjoyed the story, but it left me very confused and I didn’t really understand what Melville was trying to say. However, after turning to Google for help, it seems that the meaning of the story was deliberately ambiguous and it can be interpreted in many ways, which made me feel a lot better about not understanding it!

Next is The Lightning-Rod Man, a short and intriguing tale of a salesman who arrives at the narrator’s house in Albania during a thunderstorm and tries to sell him a lightning-rod. The narrator is sceptical and says he will trust God to keep him safe, but the salesman won’t take no for an answer. Again, the meaning is not immediately obvious, but it’s an entertaining story and reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. The third story, John Marr, is the weakest in the book, in my opinion. The title character is a retired sailor trying to adjust to a life on land, in a remote community on the American prairies. Feeling isolated and out of place, he remembers his seafaring days through songs and poems. The piece included in this collection is taken from John Marr and Other Sailors, a volume of poetry published in 1888, so maybe it would have worked better if read in the context of the original book.

Finally, we have the novella Benito Cereno, in which an American sea captain sailing off the coast of Chile encounters a Spanish slave ship in distress. Boarding the ship to see if he can help, he meets the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, who tells him how the ship came to be in trouble. As he observes the behaviour of Benito Cereno and his slaves, he begins to wonder whether there is more to this than meets the eye. This was another interesting story, but I felt that it was much too long and too easy to guess the twist; we see things only through the eyes of the narrator, who is frustratingly oblivious to what is really happening on the Spanish ship. It was also another difficult one to interpret: was it a racist, pro-slavery story or an anti-racist, anti-slavery story? It could be either and it can’t be assumed that the views of the narrator reflect the views of the author.

So, now that I’ve had my introduction to Herman Melville, will I be reading Moby Dick? At the moment I think I would prefer not to, but maybe I’ll be ready to tackle it one day in the future!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.