The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

 

Essex
Image from Waterstones website

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is a book which completely took me by surprise.  Of course, it fits in between some of my parameters for what I look for in a novel: it is historical fiction and at its core seemed to be an unusual heroine and a budding romance.  Even better – in the first few chapters and as the title would suggest, there were hints of folklore.  So, I began the book enthusiastically.

  However, I soon began to lose interest.  The heroine, Cora, has so many qualities that someone as old-school as I am in my tastes can find very off-putting.  Perry frequently describes how messy and masculine Cora is in her appearance and how difficult she finds it to be maternal.  Of course, this is very unenlightened of me, but from a purely looking-for-another-Jane-Austen-experience perspective, I feared this novel was not going to deliver.  The budding romance I thought I had sensed from the Jane Eyre-style meeting between the hero and heroine soon began to look less and less ideal.  And the one of the (what I considered to be) sub-plots to the narrative, concerning the characters of Edward Burton and Martha did not interest me.

I was dismayed to find that I was tempted not to finish the book.  But, finding one night about a week ago, that I just could not sleep, I decided to give it one more go, and I am so glad that I did.  Maybe it was the total lack of distraction that reading at 2:30 am can afford; maybe it was my mood at the time, but finally, something about the story just clicked, and I was finally involved.  Sarah Perry is an absolutely beautiful writer.  I still cannot put my finger on how she does it, but there is something so mesmerising about her ability to create huge amounts of detail and imagery with relatively few words.  Her characters, including those who are not at the centre of the plot, are all fully fleshed out and complete with little quirks to make them feel entirely real. There is a strong theme to this book of natural science and of nature, and anyone interested in either would enjoy this novel.  Perry examines the relationship between science and religion and how those attitudes, as well as those towards feminism and social reform were beginning the change at around the time that this novel is set.

This is an intelligent, sensitive and richly textured novel that has inspired me to read more of Perry’s work.  She the kind of author I should seek out more, because she takes me just slightly out of my comfort zone and challenges my ideas about what I think I will enjoy reading.

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The Captain’s Girl by Nicola Pryce

 

Captain's Girl
Image from Amazon.uk

Set in Cornwall, in 1793, The Captain’s Girl had all the right ingredients for my ideal read.  Although unashamedly narrow minded in my reading habits (all novels should be set no later than the 1950s; they should feature a heroine, preferably with some sort of tragic back story; they have to include romance as the main narrative thread) I decided to try a new author.  Nicola Pryce has written four books of the historical romance genre, three of which have been published and one which is coming soon.  I find she has a light and easy way of writing which is not too heavy on the description, but still gives you just enough of a sense of character and setting.  It was this which, when I read the first few pages, deceived me into thinking that this was going to be an enjoyable but pretty trashy read.  However, a few pages on and the story seemed suddenly to get richer and more – for want of a better word – intellectual, dealing with subjects such as the French Revolution, spies, a kidnapping and a court case, all of which were full of suspense and kept me reading for hours past my bedtime.

At the heart of this novel is a suitably unhappy heroine who longs for adventure but is trapped by the rules of society and the family into which she has been born.  Celia is surrounded by a large cast of characters, many of whom have their own interesting stories.  After finding out that the man to whom she is engaged at the beginning of the novel is cruel and unloving, she decides at last to take her life into her own hands and runs away from home.  Then the adventure begins, along with some Frenchman’s Creek style romance.  The Captain’s Girl was a joy to settle down to each evening, and I look forward to reading other books by Nicola Pryce.

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

 

How to be Victorian
Image from Amazon.uk

How to be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman is a real treat for hardcore history fans.  Indeed, I feel the title might have been chosen cleverly to catch the eyes of odd people like me, who might just view this as a dream made into reality.  A deeply detailed and comprehensive exploration of every day Victorian life, it reads surprisingly easily, almost like a novel.  Goodman writes this book from first-hand experience after living for a year on a Victorian farm (this experience was also televised for the BBC) and also from evidently extensive research.  It is full of fascinating facts, explanations and anecdotes, as well as Goodman’s own views all manner of things from what the most comfortable corset was, to how long one can go without washing one’s hair.

The book is set out so that it follows a typical day for most people in Victorian England, beginning with the morning routine of washing (or not) and dressing, and then the journey into work; and ends with a chapter entitled ‘Behind the Bedroom Door’.

Some of the most meaningful explanations in this book come from the personal histories of people who actually lived during the 1800s, or from the objects they have left behind, which reveal so much.  If you are a keen historian, you will lap up the stories that explain some of our own habits, as well as all of the facts about areas of Victorian life you might never have even considered before.

Before the Rains, by Dinah Jefferies

 

Before the Rains
Image from amazon.uk

  Before the Rains is the second book I’ve read by Dinah Jefferies.  This author has a very clever way of transporting her reader to the countries and places that she describes through her highly vivid use of imagery.  While in some books, lots of description can be off putting, this is never the case in Jefferies’ novels.  In fact, for me, it is part of the main essence.  The delicious little nuggets of setting description Jefferies distributes throughout Before the Rains give just enough detail to immerse the reader without slowing the pace of the narrative.

As with The Tea Planter’s Wife, Before the Rains features an English heroine getting to grips with the exciting and colourful culture of an exotic country.  Eliza, a refreshingly slightly older heroine had been living in India until she was ten when her father died.  After that, she and her mother returned to England until, at the age of 29, she returns to India, sent as a photographer to capture images of India under British rule.  Satisfyingly, this leads to intrigue, mystery, forbidden romance and the uncovering of long kept secrets.  This story is more political than The Tea Planter’s Wife, as it deals with the repercussions that happen when one culture attempts to rule over another without enough understanding and, in some cases, compassion.  Sometimes, the way in which Jeffries brings this to our attention is blunt and even brutal.  Sometimes, it takes a back seat to the main romance, but it is always there and forms a poignant backdrop to the action taking place.

The main theme that emerged for me from this story was that of life’s trials and the triumph of hope.  The plot, characters and setting are haunting and provide food for thought long after the novel has been put down.

The Beekeeper’s Daughter by Santa Montefiore

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Image from Amazon.co.uk

The Beekeeper’s Daughter, by Santa Montefiore is, strictly speaking, only partially historical fiction, depending on your definition.  It is set over three different eras – the 1930s (which is the historical bit), the 1970s (arguably historical for some) and the 1990s (hopefully, we’re not considering this historical yet!).

Grace is the warm and unaffected daughter of a beekeeper, who lives in a little village in Dorset.  Her mother has died before the story begins, so Grace’s relationship with her father, Arthur is close and mutually dependent.  I felt that the character of Arthur and the bond that he has with his daughter is one of the sweetest and most heart-warming aspects of this novel.  However, when he dies suddenly, our heroine is left feeling bereft and cannot bear the idea of being on her own.  Very soon after his death, Grace finds herself torn between two men who also hold very special places in her heart: the handsome aristocrat with whom she has been in love since she was a teenager, or Freddie, the faithful friend she has known all her life.  Whatever decisions Grace makes, it is easy to support her.  Montefiore has created a very likable and honest heroine for her novel, to whom it is easy to relate.

These decisions go on the affect the rest of Grace’s life, and that of her daughter, Trixie, whose own love story Montefiore leads us through sensitively and sensuously.  The secrets that weigh heavily on the shoulders of several of the characters in this novel are intriguing and keep you guessing, so that The Beekeeper’s Daughter does not feel simply like a romance, but also like a story of mystery and suspense.

There is a spiritual side to this story that I found surprising, but moving too.  The deceased continue to haunt the living throughout their lives, sometimes as images, sometimes ideas, sometimes as a tangible presence and sometimes simply as memories.  Through this unusual plot device, and through the feelings and actions of her characters, Montefiore gives a clear message in this novel for the soul; love and every person’s basic need for it is unapologetically and unconstrainedly at the heart of this immersive and emotional story.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace
Image from amazon.in

Alias Grace, By Margaret Atwood is a book I have returned to ten years after first reading it for my A-Level in English Literature.  I was blessed with a teacher at the time, who allowed us to explore the novel and highlight parts that appealed to and inspired us, simply because they did, and not because they were in tune with any particular syllabus requirements.  Perhaps that is the reason why I, unlike many others, have been able to recall a text I have had to study with fondness.  A few thought-provoking lines and strong images had remained in my mind over the years and after spotting it still on the shelf of my childhood bedroom, I determined to visit the novel again.

It was better the second-time round for many reasons, the main one being that Atwood’s leisurely pace and attention to detail produce a narrative that is so rich, it needs to be savoured and appreciated.  The novel is based on the largely untold and unknown story of Grace Marks, a Victorian girl, who at the age of sixteen was accused of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery in Canada.  After having her sentence commuted to life imprisonment, rather than death, she spends her days in a penitentiary, and is visited by an idealistic young doctor, Simon Jordan, who hopes to awaken the memories he believes Grace has been unconsciously suppressing of the day of the murder.  More importantly, he hopes that they will reveal just how involved she was.  Through the conversations that pass between the two characters, we learn about Grace’s early life in Ireland, the treacherous voyage she suffered over to Canada, and her years spent in service before the fateful day.  The characters are fully dimensional and layered to keep readers guessing and changing their minds about them.  Grace is, in one sense, incredibly truthful about the realities of lower class Victorian life, and in another, she is wholly deceptive and we, along with Simon Jordan are never sure about how honest she is being with her audience.

grace-marks-1
From murderpedia.org

This is a consuming and emotional read that has the power to completely take you in.  As well as having the obvious appeal of historical fiction, it is also a very thought provoking study of psychology.  But be warned that its candid subject matter means that it is entirely different from the escapism of say, a Jane Austen novel.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

 tea-planter The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies is a beautiful book.  I believe I first came to it because I had seen it on a recommended books list, and although it is slightly more modern than my usual choice, I really enjoyed this novel for its references to early 20th century fashion, to events of the time, but most of all, for its heart rending story.  Apart from a prologue set in 1913, the main parts of this narrative take place in the mid-1920s to 30s.  For those interested in historical fashion, there are plenty of references to the dropped waistlines and hairstyles of the 1920s, through to the butterfly sleeves and two piece suits of the 1930s.

With shadows of a gothic romance, this story concerns a young and naïve heroine, Gwendolyn, who has married a man much older than herself, and who has a dark and secretive past.  The novel is set in Ceylon which is where Gwen’s husband, Laurence owns a tea plantation.  Not having travelled nearly enough, I wondered whether the setting of the novel would put me off – I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to imagine what it was really like in Sri Lanka.  But Dinah Jefferies does such a good  – such an evocative – job of describing the scenery, the foliage, the colours, scents, sounds and the weather that whenever I took this novel out to read, I found myself utterly transported.  Indeed, I think it’s made me want to travel more.

The characters in this novel are very compelling.  Apart from the hero and heroine, there is Verity, Gwen’s petulant and unpleasant sister in law; Christina, a former flame of Laurence’s and Ravi – a charming and handsome Sinhalese man who remains enigmatic throughout.  I have named just a few, but each one is carefully sculpted and thought out and, just like the setting, they are all very physical.

The plot to the story mainly revolves around Gwen’s introduction to her new life as a married woman in a foreign country.  Having grown up in a privileged household in England, she is swept off her feet by the handsome and successful Laurence.  Although it is clear from the start that the couple share a deep love, Gwen later remarks more than once that she was perhaps too young when she married him, especially in light of what has befallen her.  She leaves her family and her home, and goes to live in Ceylon, where she has to get used to running her own household, dealing with new people and to the ways in which different people, races and cultures regard each other.  This, on its own, provides an absorbing narrative, but it is after Gwen becomes pregnant that the plot really thickens and becomes darker, more compulsive and more affecting.

The Tea Planter’s Wife is – in places – not an easy read.  It is emotional and there is a feeling when one reads it of its realism.  There are certain writers whom the reader can trust not to do anything too upsetting; not to throw anything out there that is too unsettling.  Not so with Dinah Jefferies.  But it all fits; it is all believable and it all combines to create a truly absorbing, resonant and edifying novel.