It was the title of this 1858 novel which attracted me. In the mid-nineteenth century Mayfair was an aristocratic residential district of London. The...moreIt was the title of this 1858 novel which attracted me. In the mid-nineteenth century Mayfair was an aristocratic residential district of London. The most expensive section on the British Monopoly board, today it contains some of the world’s most expensive real estate. The Morals of May Fair promises to lift the lid on the sins of Victorian high society.
And fortunately the book lives up to its promise. Although it begins in Brittany, where disillusioned young writer Philip Earnscliffe unexpectedly finds love with the beautiful Marguerite St John, most of the novel is set in London, where husband-hunting young women try to blag seats in boxes at the theatre, French counts declare love on moonlit balconies, and actresses entertain their lovers in mirror-lined boudoirs. The writing is excellent, atmospheric with Gothic touches for the scenes in Brittany, and later cynically observant of London society.
…Miss Georgy came down unexpectedly one fine day, to see “dear Marguerite;” – prepared, as she said, to forgive and forget everything, and have a long, friendly morning together.
The standing commencement of these “mornings” of female affection being for one friend to say something mortifying to the other, Miss de Burgh had opened proceedings by commenting very plainly upon her young relative’s ill looks.
Georgy de Burgh is a ferociously determined social climber – just the sort of girl for whom this kind of book was written, incidentally – and a fabulous character. If only I could say the same for Philip and Marguerite. Philip is lacking in moral courage and wedded to the double standard (at one point he complains that neither his wife nor his mistress are showing him any loyalty). Marguerite falls victim to the Victorian fetishisation of female ignorance and inexperience – euphemistically referred to as “innocence” – and the author never really allows her to come alive. In the first chapter we’re told that:
She was a young girl of scarcely sixteen, and a countenance of more perfect, and almost infantine sweetness, it would be difficult to conceive…As it had never entered into her head, or that of her father, that she was approaching the age of womanhood, she was still dressed like a mere child, in a little muslin frock, without any ornament of lace or ruffle, and so short in the skirts as to allow a full view of her tiny feet in their well-worn house slippers.
Sixteen and it’s never entered her head that she is approaching the age of womanhood? She must still be awaiting the onset of menstruation – which makes it seem all the more icky when Philip (who is in his twenties) turns up at the gate of her father’s chateau, dripping wet, in the middle of a stormy night, falls instantly in love and starts romancing her. The reader knows Philip is married. Marguerite doesn’t. This would be bad enough behaviour today, but was far worse in the Victorian era when a woman’s good reputation was of paramount importance and even the fact of her having been in love before might be enough for a potential suitor to reject her. At this point I was getting sympathetic to Marguerite, but then she ruined it all. Idiotically, she gets caught by the tide (during another storm) when she takes Philip to see a local grotto. She’s lived in the area her entire life and knows the spot well, yet this is her response when Philip, who thinks it’s a good idea to wait out the storm in the grotto, mentions that the tide is rising:
“The tide!” repeated Marguerite. “Is the tide rising?”
“I should think it was halfway in; see, it has surrounded yonder black rock, which seemed a mile from the sea when we first looked out. But we have plenty of time.”
“We have not!” cried Marguerite, seizing his hand, while her own grew cold and damp with sudden terror. “The gabarier told me not to remain in the grotto one moment after the tide had turned, and it is already halfway in.”
“Child, you should have told me sooner,” was Philip’s calm reply.
As contrived as the situation is, it has to be said that this is one of the most exciting scenes of the novel. As Philip and Marguerite, facing death in each other’s arms, feel freed to confess the truth to each other, it’s also a neat way of moving the plot forward without making Marguerite into the sort of girl who would chase a married man.
The Morals of May Fair is very much of its time. Like many midcentury novels, it feels padded, due to the pressure on authors to produce a work which would fill three volumes. The circulating libraries were the main buyers of books in this period and they rented out one volume at a time, thus a work in three volumes maximised their profit and became the industry standard. (I read an undated one-volume edition which, interestingly, has a summary of the action on every other page, for example: “Proof of Rose’s Treachery”, “The Last Meeting”, “The Old Passion Recalled.”) In this case the padding takes the form of an subplot around the mysterious history of one of Philip’s actress friends. As it bears no relation to the main plot, in essence it continues the eighteenth-century tradition of breaking up the main narrative to tell the life stories of various characters despite this doing nothing whatsoever to forward the action. There’s also some heavy foreshadowing and some anti-spoilers – i.e. pieces of information that the reader should have had earlier, but didn’t. (Like the existence of Marguerite’s Secret Diary).
The libraries took a dim view of any subject matter considered unsuitable for female perusal, and were especially concerned to protect the cluelessness innocence of young girls. This presents Edwards with somewhat of a problem in the latter half of the book: how to get a heroine in love with a married man past the censor. Her solution is to continue insisting on Marguerite’s “holy innocence” and childlike nature. As Marguerite is now a society beauty with half the men in London at her feet, this seems more than a bit ridiculous and has the effect of negating the character development she does experience. However, Edwards makes it clear that a bit more worldly wisdom would have been helpful to Marguerite, so perhaps she was trying some stealthy subversion here.
The Morals of May Fair was written at a crossroads of literary traditions. The influence of the silver fork novels which became fashionable in the 1820s is clear from the title and the London setting. From the eighteenth century it inherits the story-within-a-story tradition, the storms, chateaux and ruined chapels of Gothic fiction, plus some tropes which Jane Austen had mocked in Northanger Abbey (Marguerite is a heroine who never reads novels and who sings as well as a professional despite being completely untaught). But although the book deals with an ingenue coming out into society, Marguerite has a lot more to deal with than the linear progression towards a love match of an Austen or Burney heroine. The theme of adulterous love looks forward to the sensation novels which were to be so hugely popular in the 1860s. While not as complex as Lady Audley’s Secret or The Woman in White, The Morals of May Fair is an excellent story well worth seeking out by anyone who enjoys Victorian popular fiction. (less)
La valse lente des tortues (The slow waltz of turtles) finds Joséphine installed in a luxurious apartment in the well-to-do quarter of Passy, once a P...moreLa valse lente des tortues (The slow waltz of turtles) finds Joséphine installed in a luxurious apartment in the well-to-do quarter of Passy, once a Parisian suburb, absorbed into the city as it expanded in the nineteenth century. Balzac meets Elizabeth George in this enjoyable sequel, which revolves around the unmasking of a serial killer who strikes repeatedly in Josephine's neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Hortense goes to London to study fashion, Zoe falls in love, Iris's marriage falls apart and Josephine struggles to conquer a forbidden attraction. While the crime story was fascinating and convincingly written, that was more than could be said for some of the subplots (Hortense's encounter with Russian mobsters and Henriette's attempt to kill her ex-husband's new wife via voodoo come to mind).(less)
No, not THAT Joséphine. Katherine Pancol's bestselling trilogy has nothing to do with nineteenth-century empresses. It's the story of single mother Jo...moreNo, not THAT Joséphine. Katherine Pancol's bestselling trilogy has nothing to do with nineteenth-century empresses. It's the story of single mother Joséphine Cortès and her journey from put-upon suburban divorcée to confident, independent woman of substance.
The first novel, Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles (The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles) opens as Joséphine's husband Antoine, who has been struggling to cope with his redundancy, walks out on her to start a new life on a crocodile farm with his mistress. Joséphine has to break the news to her daughters. The elder, Hortense, is a cold, ambitious little madam, and the younger, Zoe, is sweet-natured and adorable. It reminded me of the opening of Mildred Pierce, with Joséphine, like Mildred, left as the sole provider. Joséphine is hampered not only by her modest salary as a researcher specialising in the twelfth century, but by an inferiority complex installed by her ice queen mother Henriette and spoiled, glamorous sister Iris. She starts writing the historical novel which will make her a publishing star for a most unusual reason: Iris has announced a plan to fill her days by writing a novel but can't think how to set about it, so she gets Joséphine to do it for her.
Crocodiles does more than take Joséphine from zero to hero, it sets up a gallery of characters, many of whom have secret lives or pasts. Katherine Pancol throws in plot twists and revelations like a Mad Men secretary mixing up a batch of eggnog before the office Christmas party. Yet amidst these not always realistic shenanigans, the most sympathetic of her cast are always good company, easy to identify with, even inspiring. The end result is as if Joanna Trollope, Marian Keyes and Olivia Goldsmith had sat down to write a novel together. Crocodiles is a funny and observant revenge novel with a heroine as loveable as a Disney princess. No wonder it's sold nearly two million copies.(less)
I loved Catherine Delors's debut novel, Mistress of the Revolution, so my expectations for For the King were high, and I’m delighted to say that the b...moreI loved Catherine Delors's debut novel, Mistress of the Revolution, so my expectations for For the King were high, and I’m delighted to say that the book did not disappoint. An historical thriller, it deals with the failed assassination attempt on Napoleon in Paris on Christmas Eve 1800 – or, in French Revolutionary parlance, the 3rd of the month of Nivose (translation: Frosty) of Year Nine of the Republic.
For the King follows the investigation after the attack, which, although it failed to harm Napoleon, killed and maimed many other people. The central character is Roch Miquel, the son of a tavern owner who has risen to be Chief of Police. Roch is convinced from the start that the Royalist faction is behind the plot, but unfortunately his patron and superior, the untrustworthy Fouché, is anxious to assign the blame to the ex-Jacobins who also want to see Bonaparte fall – among them Roch’s father.
And the lady on the cover? Roch is involved with Blanche Coudert, the beautiful young wife of a newly-rich banker. But his relationship to her comes under strain in the course of the investigation. You may notice that the cover image is from later in the 19th century, so the dress has been digitally altered to conform to the high waistline fashionable in 1800!
Although the cover highlights the romantic subplot, the main drive of the book is the chase after the assassins. This is a fast-paced read which never sacrifices atmosphere and is rich with details gleaned from archival research.
A very accomplished second novel and a wonderful read.
I received an ARC of For the King from the author. Read my full review and Q&A with Catherine Delors here:
The Greengage Summer is about children but not a children’s book. I’m not sure how to classify it: it’s somewhere between YA and general fiction. In a...moreThe Greengage Summer is about children but not a children’s book. I’m not sure how to classify it: it’s somewhere between YA and general fiction. In a nutshell, Cecil (Cecilia) Grey narrates the story of what happened the summer she and her siblings spent at a hotel in the Champagne region of France.
There’s no one to supervise them because their father is absent on an expedition and their mother falls ill as soon as they arrive in France and spends several weeks in a French hospital, leaving the children in the care of an Englishman staying in the hotel, Eliot, who turns out to be a rather unsuitable guardian.
The children are spoiled and insular, and their mother intended to educate them with visits the French battlefields and war graves. In the event they don’t go near a battlefield and their education comes through the discovery of alcohol, cigarettes and adult sexuality. That makes it sound a more racy book than it is: the narrative brilliantly evokes the significance of small milestones like a first taste of champagne.
The book was first published in 1958, but I wasn’t convinced that the setting was the 1950s. The references to the war could as easily mean the First World War as the Second World War – appropriate enough to a book which is all about ambiguity.
While England and the English are repeatedly associated with the colour grey (the family’s surname is grey; the children arrive at the hotel dressed in their grey flannel school uniforms; the wallpaper in Cecil’s bedroom at home is a ‘grey-blue pattern’) France is associated with the colour green. Green is associated with fertility and, by extension, with sexuality. The hotel proves to be a hotbed of various passions and the cat is put among the pigeons when Cecil’s beautiful sixteen-year-old sister, Joss, comes downstairs after a period of illness and immediately attracts the attention of Eliot – to the fury of his lover, the hotel owner, Mademoiselle Zizi. Which brings us to another thing associated with green – jealousy.
Instead of doing the sensible thing and poisoning a greengage, then dressing up as an old crone to get Joss to eat it, Mademoiselle Zizi starts to let herself go – drinking too much and forgetting to put blush on – which doesn’t help matters. But if she is playing the Wicked Queen to Joss’s Snow White, then Joss (who in two scenes admires her own beauty in the mirror) begins to aspire to queenship herself.
Joss’s discovery of her new power is very quickly followed by the discovery that it has limitations. She can’t make Eliot commit to her – he continues to play her off against Mademoiselle Zizi. There are ways to deal with this kind of behaviour: you can turn elusive, ending phone calls after a few minutes by gaily announcing that you have ‘a million things to do!’ Or you can drop the man in question. (Moppet recommends dropping him). Joss makes a different choice – a choice which will have far-reaching consequences for all concerned. She and Cecil learn the hard way that (to use another food metaphor) they can’t have their cake and eat it – the privileges of adulthood come with dangers and responsibilities attached.
Bottom line: insightful and evocative coming-of-age story.