For the first half of the book, I was very confused. Is this non-fiction? It's written almost like a biography. But it's not. But it doesn't read likeFor the first half of the book, I was very confused. Is this non-fiction? It's written almost like a biography. But it's not. But it doesn't read like fiction. At all. What am I reading??
Needless to say, while this was a fantastically written novel and I was very drawn into the story of the Opium Eater and his daughter, I was also very keenly aware that, while this is supposed to be historical fiction, the lines between fiction and history were very tenuous, indeed. And maybe it's because of these blurred lines that it's been touted as one of these year's best works.
Did that distract? Sometimes. Especially when Morrell would start a sentence with "Back in the 1850s...." He had a tendency to be didactic, almost to a fault. Then again, it was these little immersive lessons in Victorian culture that gave so much of the authenticity and flavor to the novel. I will say, however, that the use of third person omniscient, while common in most nineteenth century writing, sometimes served to pull me out of the time period because the narrator's voice was so strong and so obviously of this time period.
Nevertheless, this was a really good read. Taut and thrilling, with wonderful character development, it was certainly a fun ride. And, as Morrell points out, the real-life DeQuincey was the father of a host of things we take for granted these days (e.g., coining the term "subconscious" long before Freud, serving as inspiration to both Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, thereby setting the path for the modern mystery and detective extraordinaire, etc.).
Definitely a solid four stars. If I hadn't been distracted by the ever present feeling of today, I'd have given it five stars....more
This biographical story about Isabella Robinson broke my heart. Imagine that you are Isabella: you are a Victorian lady and have had a privileged upbrThis biographical story about Isabella Robinson broke my heart. Imagine that you are Isabella: you are a Victorian lady and have had a privileged upbringing. Nevertheless, you were married off not once, but twice. Your first husband died, leaving you with a small child, and your second husband is avaricious, cruel and a philanderer.
Since you live in Victorian times, anything you own is the property of your husband's. Your father gave you £5000 as a wedding gift for your first wedding; he gave you another £5000 as a wedding gift for your second wedding. This is a good sum of money (not counting the inheritance you received after your father passed away), and with interest, you earn around £400 a year. Since these were your father's gift to you, your husband cannot touch any of your money. Except that your second husband, Henry Robinson, cajoles then insists that you sign over all your blank checks to him, so that he has access to all your money. Eventually, to keep the peace in your marriage, you relent.
You also find out that your husband has been cheating on you; he has taken on a mistress and has fathered daughters with her. Furthermore, he spends most of his time away from you; he is gone for months at a time, doing business (spending your money), building houses (from the earnings of the businesses you have essentially financed) and being with his other family (his mistress' family). You want out of the marriage, but can't leave, since English law will more than likely award your husband sole custody of your children. You have no choice but to remain with Henry.
You live an unhappy life, empty and lonely, save for the time you spend with your children and when you visit friends. Your friends are an intellectual group, and offer you an escape from the tediousness of your quotidian life. It is a refreshing escape, and makes the monotony of your life bearable. Every time your husband comes home, however, he finds fault in everything you do and say, as well as in the children's behavior.
The one thing that offers you true solace is the time you spend writing about your life in your diary. You describe all your hopes and dreams, and yes, even your attraction toward other men -- crushes, in today's parlance -- such as your children's tutor or a neighboring doctor, because you simply are not receiving the respect, love and attention you crave and desire from your husband.
You write about your husband's atrocious behavior, and you also document every time you have had a conversation or a visit with a good friend you have fallen in love with, Dr. Edward Lane. You and Dr. Lane have long conversations about poetry, literature, philosophy. In other words, he stimulates you intellectually, makes you feel like a woman by igniting all these feelings you never felt in either of your marriages, and unlike your husband, he is a devoted father and husband.
When your husband discovers your diary -- and remember, anything you own, including any of your papers, are considered his property -- he uses that as a means to take your children away from you. It is also his way of gaining a separation from you at first, then again to obtain a divorce later on, on the grounds that you had committed adultery, and that the proof was in your diary. What's worse, the contents of your diaries are laid out not only to the judges at the trial, but are provided to newspapers and magazines as well, so that everyone in England, Scotland and Wales now has access to your innermost thoughts, to the collapse of your marriage, to your fears regarding separation from your children.
It is salacious reading; so much so that some newspaper editors are reluctant to publish what occurred in court or excerpts from your diary, lest children inadvertently read the paper at the breakfast table. Nevertheless, others will publish it; your writing becomes a daily topic of conversation, and not in a good way. The boundary between truth and fiction are discussed, argued, and deliberated in the courtroom, and you have no choice but to remain silent. The man you were in love with, Dr. Lane, denies ever having had any relations with you, and in order to save him and his reputation (as well as to prevent Henry from receiving a monetary amount from Edward, if you and he are proven guilty of adultery), you must admit that everything you wrote about him in your diary was nothing but a fanciful lie. Your lawyers plead insanity -- because why else would a perfectly sound and normal woman write such things in her diary, if not because she couldn't distinguish between fact and fiction, and also because she was suffering from erotomania and/or nyphomania -- and again, you remain silent.
This was a really good work of narrative non-fiction. It showcased how powerless women were, in a time when women were actually becoming their own persons, holding down jobs, having careers and were regarded as esteemed writers, philosophers, nurses and business women. The double standard that was prevalent at the time was disheartening. The fact that for a woman to request a separation or a divorce, she had to prove unusual cruelty, abandonment or physical abuse but not adultery was ridiculous. On the other hand, the primary reason a man could file for separation or divorce was...you got it...adultery.
This book had me livid at times (in a good way). While it is still unclear whether Isabella Robinson had an affair with Edward Lane, what is sure is that in her mind, and by her own admission, and ultimately, in the minds of everyone else at the time, she committed adultery of the heart. By loving someone else, regardless of whether it was physical or not, her husband was able to take her own words and use it against her, taking her children, her money and her life away from her.
There were so many jaw-dropping moments in this book, but I don't want to go into them since they're all spoilers. Suffice to say, as much as the Victorian era is one of my favorites, I don't think I could have abided the double standards as far as marriage went. It's a shame Isabella hadn't been born just sixty or seventy years later: her whole life may have been different if she had been....more
I was very torn with this book. There were parts where the characterization of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji were so real, that it made me realI was very torn with this book. There were parts where the characterization of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji were so real, that it made me really love the writing, the author, the narrative as a whole. The corollary to that, of course, is that there were other parts that Barnes brought forward -- whether fictionalized or true to life -- that made me question why anyone would've even cared about either of these men. It's always a slippery slope with historical fiction, where authenticity -- be it of character, of place, or even of motive -- eventually comes into question. And it certainly came through in this work.
Doyle, obviously the more popular of the titular characters, was well-drawn and much of what Barnes wrote about him could be substantiated through numerous literary and historical sources. Of Edalji, there's significantly less out there, and a majority of what is available centers around the case that brought Arthur and George together. There isn't that much about the man himself, which is a shame.
Still, I found that there was something so abstruse with both men that really made me not care for either character in the end. I thought the novel was fabulous in the beginning, going back and forth between child Arthur and child George, comparing and contrasting, in binary fashion, the similarities between the two boys in spite of the differences in attitude, in bearing, in race and class. But as they grew older, Barnes' characterization brought out the Jeckyll and Hyde in both men, where the gentleman was neither as courteous nor as honorable as could be expected in those times, and the monster took different forms other than the horrific. For Barnes as an author, whose thesis at the end came down to a verdict of "on the one hand vs. an on the other hand", his handling of the dichotomy between (and through) Arthur and George was not as successful, in my opinion.
Maybe in today's society, George would've been characterized as a very high functioning autistic or maybe someone with Asperger's syndrome instead of the aloof, distant and excessively logical man that was portrayed in the book. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle really was as egotistical, as pretentious or as autocratic as he was characterized. Either way, as the men -- and the characters grew older -- I sympathized less and less with each one.
While the mystery, the court case, and the eventual verdict was captivating enough and kept me reading, Barnes' (and Doyle's) dry and relentless forays into spiritism and George's lack of connection with the world ultimately put me off. It was a really good story, but I felt that the execution fell a bit flat....more