Oh, what a book this is! It has a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, it is full of drama and intrigue, it has plenty to say, and every single thing in it is so cleverly and vividly drawn that I found myself living and breathing the story.
It begins with Hugh Scarlett, who is set on breaking his relationship with his mistress, the married Lady Newhaven, even as he is travelling to a party at her home. He realises that his position is invidious, but he is set on his course.
He is even more certain that he is doing the right thing when, soon after his arrival, he catches sight of young woman he has never seen before. He is struck, not by her beauty but by the expression in her eyes, and he decides there and then that he must make her his wife. She leaves though, before he even learns her name.
Meanwhile, Lord Newhaven is delighted to see Richard Vernon, a friend who has been overseas for a very long time, and who has come to the party purely by chance. He is also drawn to that woman, and his friendship with his host allows him to learn her name – Rachel West – and a little of her story.
Lord Newhaven is preoccupied thought; there is something that he knows he must do. As Hugh is leaving he invites him into his study for a moment. He gives Hugh to understand that he knows of his affair with his wife; and he offers him, not a duel, but a drawing of spills. With the man who drew the shorter of the two undertaking to end his life within five months of that night.
Hugh drew, without stopping to think that he might refuse.
It was a wonderful beginning: Mary Cholmondeley wrote beautifully, balancing narrative, drama, character drawing and story possibilities with such skill. I felt compassion for each of the ‘duellists’; I was intrigued by Rachel; I even felt sympathy for the spoiled Lady Newhaven.
The next day, Hugh was a dinner guest at the home of Doll Loftus and his wife Sybell, a lady eager to establish herself as a society hostess. Rachel was there too, and though his mind was crowded with thoughts of his encounter with Lord Newhaven, he was still drawn to her. They found themselves united in in defence of Rachel’s friend Hester Gresley, whose novel of London’s East End is a critical and popular success. It was said that she could not know, could not possibly understand the world she wrote of, but Rachel knew that she could and she did.
Rachel had been the daughter of wealthy parents. Theirs wasn’t old money, her father was a self-made man. He lost everything he made though, making bad decisions, and when her parents died Rachel had nothing. She was determined to be independent and to support herself, and so she took lodgings in the East End, and made a meagre living as a typist. She lived like that for years, until she inherited a fortune from her father’s former business partner.
She and Hester had been friends from childhood, and it is the drawing of that friendship that raises this book so high. The two of them were quite different in character, but they complemented each other so well, and Mary Cholmondeley illuminates that beautifully as she show them meeting for the first time.
“Such a friendship, very deep, very tender, existed between Rachel West and Hester Gresley. It dated back from the nursery days, when Hester and Rachel solemnly eyed each other, and then made acquaintance in the dark gardens of Portman Square, into which Hester introduced a fortified castle with a captive princess in it, and a rescuing prince and a dragon, and several other ingredients of romance to the awed amazement of Rachel—stolid, solid, silent Rachel—who loved all two and four legged creatures, but who never made them talk to each other as Hester did. And Hester, in blue serge, told Rachel, in crimson velvet, as they walked hand in hand in front of their nursery-maids, what the London sparrows said to each other in the gutters, and how they considered the gravel path in the square was a deep river suitable to bathe in. And when the spring was coming, and the prince had rescued the princess so often from the dungeon in the laurel-bushes that Hester was tired of it, she told Rachel how the elms were always sighing because they were shut up in town, and how they went out every night with their roots into the green country to see their friends, and came back, oh! so early in the morning, before any one was awake to miss them. And Rachel’s heart yearned after Hester, and she gave her her red horse and the tin duck and magnet, and Hester made stories about them all.”
The characters of the two women are drawn so very well; they had such depth, they had such life, that I couldn’t help being drawn in and caring so much about them.
Hester had was brought up by an aunt who was protective of her, who encouraged her ambition to write, and was proud when her niece’s first novel was a success. Her aunt’s death left her with very little money, and she found that she had no alternative but to make a home with her brother and his family.
That was a problem. James Gresley was narrow-minded, self-righteous, and utterly incapable of seeing any view point but his own adoring wife will never challenge or change that. He was supported by an adoring wife, a loyal congregation, and a social circle quite unlike the one to which his sister was used. He though his sister’s writing trivial, far less important then his tracts; and, try as she might, Hester could never manage to follow the path her family expected her to follow; she had to live as a writer.
The story moves between the two friends.
The relationship between Hugh and Rachel grows; but their situation is complicated by his duel with Lord Newhaven, by Lady Newhaven’s unwillingness to let go, and by their understanding of – and honesty about – that situation.
A chain of circumstances has terrible consequences for Hester.
Mary Cholmondeley plotted her story so cleverly, twisting it again and again; and making my heart rise and fall so many times as I followed the fortunes of a cast of characters who became so very real to me.
(There’s so much I could say, there are so many talking points; but I don’t want to say too much because I’d hate to spoil this story for anyone who has yet to read it.)
The two storylines are separate, meeting only as the two friends meet, but the book works because each storyline is so good. There are echoes of great authors, there is glorious satire and wit, there is passionate advocacy of a woman’s right to set the course of her own life; and that is all held together by the most compelling of human dramas and writing that is full of heart and intelligence.
It feels like a Victorian novel, but it also feels wonderfully subversive.
I loved it!