Do you think of Victorians as repressed and always perfectly proper individuals, Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum may change your mind. The author tells five stories that illuminate how they looked at out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the power of women to choose mates, the importance of social class, and child violence. What I liked the most about the book was the way the author could start talking, say, about a suspicion of pregnancy in one of young Queen Victoria’s lady attendants, and take us right into the shenanigans and intrigue of the court, including the very undignified behavior of Queen Victoria herself, who, it seemed, started quite wild before becoming o so proper.
That said, the book is a tad long and discursive.
I thought Inspector Dalgliesh was awfully young in Cover Her Face, not realizing until I sat down to write this review that it was the very first Dalgliesh mystery in the series. And young Dalgliesh operates, logically, in a post-WWII atmosphere peopled with country squires, parlor maids, and falling apart once-grand homes that feel like an Agatha Christie mystery. It’s quite interesting to see a different-time setting.
The story is also Christie-like, with the least-suspected person ending up as the murderer (now, did I give it away?). More interestingly, the victim is herself rather devious, so the inquest is as much about her as it is about finding the killer. Old-fashionedly delightful.
Ian Mc Ewan has written a book with a very clever premise of the narrator being an unborn baby. But beyond that unique perspective, the plot of Nutshell is entirely expected from the start, and the unique perspective of the baby seems to bring little new to the story, except from an altogether overly precious knowledge of wine (the mom drinks a lot) and very repetitive sex interludes (her lover is assiduous, if mercifully brief). It could be quite fun if the unexpected point of view was fleshed out (haha) in more detail.
The Ballroom is a love story that takes place in an insane asylum at the beginning of the 20th Century. Of course, in those days perfectly sane people could be locked up for years, whether they were depressed, destitute, or uppity (special category for women here) and the story focuses on two mentally healthy people who happened to behave badly, once, and did not have anyone to protect them from institutionalization. Their romance is thwarted by a sadistic medical attendant who fervently believes in eugenics but may be the character with the most psychological issues, at least in the context of the times when certain behaviors were thought to be aberrant. Don’t expect happy endings, but what a beautiful story with a meaningful historical context that the author manages to always keep behind the plot.
Where Women Are Kings tells a very hard story, of a young boy who has suffered terrible abuse by his mentally ill mother, and others, and who, adopted by a wonderful couple, struggles to fit in his new life. The story is told in alternating chapters between his new life and disturbing letters from his birth mother that slowly reveal what happened to the boy before the adoption. It’s all very dark but beautiful in the saddest possible way. Perhaps not what you are looking to read on summer vacation but there is a lot of love in the book, especially from the adoptive mother and the wonderful adoptive grandfather, and the descriptions of the troubled child are haunting.
Thrumpton Hall: Elegy of an Obsessive Love is a rather strange memoir. Its title refers to the grand house the author’s father inherited and dedicated himself to maintaining, but the focus is on the father rather than the house. He was far from a wonderful father, nor was he a great husband, and the author’s determination to get her mother to admit his faults is embarrassing at times. It seems, indeed, that her father married for appearances’ sake, both to mask the fact that he was gay and, perhaps, to acquire the financial means to maintain his beloved Thrumpton. All this makes for a rather disagreeable, sad, and vindictive story, amongst wealthy people who keep to their set and serve as a good advertisement for hefty inheritance taxes.