This is a wonderfully entertaining drama, set in 19th century London; and it’s a lovely warm story, full of emotions, light and shade, drama and suspense.
Cordelia Preston and her oldest, dearest friend, Rillie Spoons, were actresses, but they had both had passed the first flush of youth, and they found that that the only roles left to them were hags, crones and elderly mothers; and that they were expected to be so grateful that they could at least still work in small, provincial theatres for derisory – if any – wages.
They dreamed of breaking away, of somehow establishing themselves in a household of their own, but they didn’t know how.
Until Cordelia remembered her aunt – ‘Miss Preston of Bloomsbury’ – who had found success as a mesmerist after a backstage accident brought to an end her own acting career. Cordelia had inherited her books, and when she found them and read them, she decided that she and her friend could follow in her footsteps and be mistresses of their own lives too.
She thought that she would be an actress playing a part; but she soon found that she had also inherited skills from her aunt, that she had some sort of healing power in her hands. And so – with the help of the gentleman mesmerist who had loved and supported her aunt – she established a hugely successful business, bringing comfort to the sick, the fearful, and the needy; and counselling young women who were fearful of the pain they would have to endure on their wedding nights.
Her rise was rapid; but there were one or two unhappy customers, and there were people who would hold her past acting career against her.
And Cordelia had a secret. She had children, but they were lost to her. She longed to find them, but she knew that the world must never know that she was their mother, because her notoriety could do them so much harm.
It was, of course, inevitable that a scandal would blow up around the famous Miss Preston; and the story ends in high drama, with a shocking murder, a riveting court case, and that’s not all.
But I don’t want to say too much….
Barbara Ewing tells her story wonderfully well. Her characters are vivid, her storytelling is engaging, and, though there was much that was highly improbable, I was swept along because I was emotionally engaged with the characters and their stories. I always wanted to know what was going to happen, and I was never entirely sure.
The structure is a little messy, and the book feels a little long; but it’s the messiness of real lives, the different strands of the story come together well, and I found that there was no detail that wasn’t important to the story.
The depictions of the theatre world, of the lives of mesmerists, and of London life, are wonderful. And there are some interesting themes threaded through the story, exploring the rigidity and unfairness of the class system, the sexual suppression of young woman, the way society viewed women who chose not to marry, resistance to change and to alternatives to traditional medicine.
And, loveliest of all, this story celebrates friendships between women and the way women support each other, and the gifts that we inherit from those who came before us and can pass to those who will follow us.
It’s packed full of emotions – love, regret, humour, despair, heart-break, fear – and it’s clearly underpinned by a great deal of research.
As the story drew to a close there was too much drama, and I saw rather too clearly that things were being set up for a sequel.
And so I have to say that this book had it’s weaknesses, but I did enjoy it.
And I do want to read that sequel ….