New Release Review: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor, Shadowplay (2019)

Till recently, I knew nothing about Bram Stoker beyond his name, as the author of Dracula. I didn’t know he was the theatrical manager for Henry Irving, and worked with Ellen Terry — about both of whom I did know a little more, largely thanks to my reading of the theatre-mad Robertson Davies. So when the chance to review a new novel about the theatrical trio came up, I jumped on it.

Though I was not sure what to expect, fortunately it turned out to be a delight, one of my favorite books of the year so far. In a nod to Stoker’s famous epistolary novel, it’s presented as an assemblage of letters, memoirs, transcripts and other invented documents. And it mainly covers the time around the composition of that novel, exploring how an obscure Dublin clerk became the manager for the eccentric, extravagant genius Irving and his Lyceum Theatre in London — while compulsively penning the weird and occult tales that brought undying fame only after his own death.

The Lyceum was a brilliant but ultimately doomed venture that strained Stoker’s family relationships and sometimes perhaps his sanity.  The story is full of ghosts — one is reputed to haunt the theatre, but there are also the dim remnants of childhood trauma, unfulfilled dreams, inadmissible longings. The actor’s playing out of a “second self” is a recurring motif, echoed in the shadow-worlds that Stoker creates in his writing. Such “shadowplay” gives power to art, whether in acting or in writing, but it is also a dangerous enterprise, as it taps into the hidden and unfulfilled sides of the human self. To convey that danger and that power, with a strong dash of Irish comedy, is no small achievement.

O’Connor writes in a vigorous, playful style that is not at all Victorian, and yet he somehow effectively evokes that era, especially the emotional and sexual turmoil that underlay its external propriety. But ultimately this is not a study of sex and death, but a story of love: the love that grew between three gifted, sometimes tormented, but thoroughly remarkable people. I’ve no idea how historically accurate it may be, but emotionally it rings true, and leaves me with a sense of having met these characters, or at least having seen them play out a part of their lives on the “stage” of the novel.

With a memorable guest appearance by Oscar Wilde, ample glimpses backstage for theatre lovers, and supporting roles by the spouses and children of the central trio (with some remarkable characters in their own right), there was so much to enjoy, and to learn. I do plan to read Dracula now and then to go back to see what references I missed. Whether you’ve read Stoker’s masterpiece or not, I urge you to check this out, too.


Back to the Classics: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

I’m not a horror fan, so I’ve never made an effort to read the classics of the genre — but for one reason or another, in the last few years I’ve read Frankenstein, Dracula, and now this brief but hugely influential tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

With all three of these books, it is hard to come at them with an unspoiled mind because the basic facts of the story are usually well known. In this case, the dual identity of Dr Jekyll can hardly be news to anyone. But the reading of these stories usually holds other surprises, as the author’s particular method of storytelling is not held sacred in retellings or dramatizations, perhaps for good reason.

Here, most of the novella is concerned with characters who observe Jekyll and Hyde but are unable to put the two together. However, since any suspense meant to be caused thereby is no longer effective, it’s with some impatience that we wait to hear from Jekyll himself — which comes only at the end, after the fact, as it were. The oddly distant, third-hand point of view is not the most obvious way of creating a tense and thrilling tale. But perhaps there was some hesitancy about approaching this subject that caused Stevenson to put it at arm’s length.

As with Victor Frankenstein’s creature and the undead Count Dracula, Stevenson has created an image of the Double, the dark shadowy figure that lurks in our unconscious and that plays out our inadmissible desires. While Frankenstein is haunted by the product of his overly intellectual thinking, and Dracula embodies the evil bloodlust of egoistic feeling, Jekyll shows the dangers of splitting off a part of the will. Wanting to be an outwardly good and upright person, but still to indulge the drives (never explicitly spelled out) of his worse nature, he “precipitates out” that part of himself into the horrible Hyde. But his ability to control the transformation is limited, and becomes more precarious until the final tragic outcome.

All three of these works are powerful and compelling expressions of a psychological problem that has great relevance for our time — the encounter with the evil that lurks in each one of us, an unsolved riddle which calls up fantastical images as we try to understand and master it. Each author has created something that transcends the work it came from and has taken on a life of its own. But it is still always interesting and worthwhile to go back to the origin and experience its particular qualities.

Stevenson wrote the book after a disturbing dream, and it can resonate with some of our own nightmare experiences. The spiral of addiction, of being unable to come to oneself while in the grip of some overmastering drive, is imaged in Jekyll’s downfall, for example. To this dilemma Stevenson offers no answer, no viable solution, except perhaps that as readers we can observe this sad fate and try to learn something from it ourselves.

It’s notable that it’s when Jekyll has renounced the draft that transforms him into Hyde because of its dangers, but yet is unable to resist indulging in the vices of his dark side, that he starts transforming uncontrollably and unpredictably. How do we truly become masters of ourselves and all our parts and possibilities? Why are evil habits and compulsions so strong, even for fundamentally good people? The tale feels unfinished, and raises many questions. But it’s up to us try to answer them.

Back to the Classics: Name in the Title


Beautiful Books: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1847)

January 17, 2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë, bringing the attention of the world to the youngest and least celebrated of the three literary sisters from Yorkshire. The Folio Society has marked the occasion by releasing a new edition of Anne’s second and most substantial novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Now Anne-partisans (the number of which seems to have been quietly growing over the last couple of centuries) can feel vindicated, with this splendid volume in series with the most recent Folio incarnations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With their somber binding designs touched with gold, compelling illustrations, pleasantly hefty size that is still not too cumbersome for reading, wide margins, and clear, carefully set type, they provide a fitting setting for the words of three groundbreaking women who changed our reading world forever.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

If Anne has not always been fully included in this company, it’s not really her fault. All three writers attracted disapproval from moral arbiters of the day, but Anne was the only one to be censored and suppressed by her own sister. When Anne died just a year after the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which had already gone into a second edition), Charlotte withdrew the novel from circulation, fearing that it cast a negative shadow on her sister’s character. It was only reissued in 1854 with major editorial omissions that have persisted to this day.

Why was the book so frightening to conventional minds? While the other Brontë books have plenty of men behaving badly — bigamy, attempted murder, and psychological and physical abuse are perfectly in order for them — Tenant is the only one that has a woman challenging the bonds of marriage with fully rational moral conviction.

At the time, no matter how bad the man, a woman once married could not escape from him without being judged and blamed. Sadly today, though outer societal structures may have changed, these dark and confining assumptions are still at work. We still need writers who are willing to challenge such strictures, and Anne Brontë is their foremother. In this edition, the illustrations by Valentina Catto  incorporate a subtle, almost ghostly photographic element that complements the nineteenth-century text with a touch of modernity.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Tenant suffers from a long opening section that is a poorly-conceived framing device, narrated by an uninteresting and unconvincing male character. (Charlotte might with justification have given some criticism on artistic grounds, rather than objecting as she did to the subject matter.) Some skimming is not inadvisable here.

Fortunately, once we reach the main part of the book, Helen Huntington’s journal, the narrative becomes much more compelling. Her tale of marital deception and disillusionment is heartbreaking but surely not unusual. What is unusual is her decision to reject abuse and exploitation, to risk everything to protect her child, and to stand firm in her own sense of herself.

Helen’s moralizing at times comes too much to the fore, like an object lesson from a teetotaler’s tract; I find her to lack the psychological depth of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe from Villette. Helen also becomes far too saintly towards the end in a death scene that is everything a Victorian heart could desire. But she still lives as a character and draws us into her world, and she is braver and more sure of her own integrity than Jane or Lucy.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Restoring the full text is obviously vital to appreciating Anne Brontë’s achievement, and her true daring. The Folio edition is based on the 1992 version prepared from the original by Oxford University Press; it includes Brontë’s important preface to the second edition that responds to some of the negative comments on her work.

The introduction by historical novelist and Brontë enthusiast Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, A Single Thread) puts the work into context with some pertinent details, but is not anything terribly special. I confess to wishing that Folio would commission more scholarly introductions that strive for more illuminating and surprising insights. I find them to be usually fairly bland and forgettable in general.

But the words of the author herself are as pointed as one could wish:

“When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are rather than as they would wish to appear.”

Amen, and happy birthday, Anne.


The Shepard Touch: Drawn from Life

E.H. Shepard, Drawn from Life (1961)

Ernest Shepard, best known today as the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh and its companions, wrote two memoirs that have just been added to the lovely series of Slightly Foxed Editions. These small, colorful hardcovers, bound in the UK, are typeset in a clean, nicely balanced format that is a pleasure to read. The contents, aside from all being memoirs or biographies, vary widely, but some of my very favorites are the ones that include illustrations by the artist-authors: Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone, and now Shepard’s profusely illustrated pair.

As you might expect from Shepard’s masterful children’s book illustrations, which capture idiosyncracies of character with a remarkable economy of line, these are delightful vignettes of a Victorian childhood and adolescence. The writing style is straightforward, with an understated sense of humor. The narrative rambles along in an episodic, generally chronological way — as I described in my earlier review of the first volume (in another edition), Drawn from Memory, “there’s no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.”

I’d not yet been able to find the second volume, Drawn from Life, when I happily learned of the Slightly Foxed reprint. So I couldn’t wait to learn what happened next in Shepard’s young life.

The death of his mother is simply but movingly described, the young artist’s feelings too deep for many words. The family goes through several moves and upheavals after this, living with a redoubtable set of aunts before claiming their own new home. Shepard also changes schools several times before settling into the Royal Academy art training. One amusing anecdote concerns Shepard and several colleagues helping a friend to finish his painting in time for a deadline.

My favorite part of the book was probably the touching love story of Ernest and his wife, also a talented painter whom he admired from afar before he dared to tell her of his feelings. The book ends with their marriage — I would have loved to go on to learn more about the young couple’s married life and family, but since these books originated as reminiscences for the benefit of the author’s children, perhaps it was not thought necessary to carry on once they came on the scene.

This volume covers a much longer span of time than the first, which took place within a single year, so it has more breadth than depth, and sometimes I found the pace a little headlong. But it gives us a priceless glimpse of an endlessly fascinating era, and of the origins of an artist. Thank you, Slightly Foxed, for yet another gem.


Beautiful Books: Uncle Silas

J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

It’s yet another classic book review! I’ve been doing a lot of these lately as I try to plow through my accumulated TBR pile. But while on vacation I took a whole bunch of newer books along with me on the e-reader, so I hope to have something completely different for you very soon. Even though I do like reviewing classics, I don’t want to focus on them exclusively on the blog.

In the meantime, I’m going back to the Victorian era with a giant of the Gothic genre. I confess that it was the looks, not the content, of this book that initially caught my attention. It’s a Folio Society edition with illustrations by Charles Stewart, a fascinating character in his own right — a theatre enthusiast, collector, and artist who was obsessed with the tale for many years. He created some of the pictures for an edition that never made it into print, but these were eventually incorporated into the Folio publication along with a gorgeous period-style binding design.

The illustrations are also beautifully in tune with the Victorian aesthetic, and though done in pen and ink imitate the engravings that often adorned books of the period. These are plentiful and add marvelously to the brooding atmosphere. The typography is unobtrusively excellent as well.

But what about the story? (Spoiler alert here — I’m going to refer to some major plot points.) It’s narrated by a seventeen-year-old girl who inherits her father’s enormous estate and is sent to live with her Uncle Silas in his crumbling house. She wants to honor her father’s wish to believe him innocent of a horrible crime of which he was accused years ago, but this becomes more and more difficult as the ominous characters and events pile up …

Though I enjoyed the book overall, I was left with a faint sense of disappointment. Many elements seemed to me to have more potential than was actually fulfilled. There was a fantastically villainous French governess, for instance, but Le Fanu seemed to lose interest in her and her evil petered out into ridiculousness. Another character, a neglected girl with a wonderfully unconventional personality and manner of  speaking, had to be immediately smoothed out and made into a model of Victorian propriety, which was unfortunate. And there was a big build-up of the “Swedenborgian” view of spirits and angels, which would seem to presage some supernatural-slash-psychological crisis, but nothing came of this.

Most seriously, our heroine, Maud, was too silly and passive for my taste. I loved the theme of trying to break through deception to the true reality, but Maud spent far too much time clinging to her wish for Silas to be good, even when it was completely obvious that he wasn’t. She ignored her forebodings for so long that she deserved what came to her, and was saved not by her own awakened initiative and insight, but by some equally silly antics on the part of her captors.

These left me baffled, because they were trying to kill Maud very cleverly in secret so that nobody would know, but the whole point of killing her was to get her inheritance, for which purpose her death would need to be made public. Perhaps this was an indication of Silas’s disturbed mental state, but as a crime it made no sense.

Then there was the way her killer had to enter the murder room laboriously through a secretly contrived window, creating a locked-room mystery — but then Silas barged in to check on the murder through the door. Wouldn’t it have been easier for the murderer to just go in through the door and exit through the window?

And so on. Such inconsistencies left me with a sense that Le Fanu was not quite in command of his material, in spite of the parts of it that shone. Influential as he was in the beginnings of the Gothic/thriller genre, there are others who have done it better — though for a dive back into those early days of the genre, you can’t do better than this beautifully rendered edition.

Classics Club list #68


New Release Review: The Essex Serpent

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (2016)

Perhaps because the nineteenth century saw the rise of the novel as a literary form, giving us an unprecedented number of imagined narratives about daily life and relationships, there’s a particular fascination in trying to go “behind the curtain” of the period and discern what the Victorians did NOT say in their fiction. Due to societal expectations and conventions, there were many things they could not talk about directly (at least in English — perhaps Continental fiction was more frank). What would Victorian novelists write if this secret history could be revealed, and what would we learn about their real thoughts and feelings?

In more recent times, this question has given rise to compelling novels by the likes of John Fowles, A.S. Byatt, and Sarah Waters, among others. They try to embody aspects of the narrative voice of a bygone age, while retaining a modern sensibility that illuminates the past in a new light. A new entry in this seductive sub-genre is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which takes on the clash of science, faith, and superstition that erupted in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries. Symbol and focus of this cultural turmoil is the mysterious Essex Serpent, which had reputedly been sighted in a seaside town centuries ago, and now seems to be appearing again. Is it a judgment? A scientific marvel? A relic from ancient times? A supernatural warning, or wonder? Or something far more banal and ordinary, given fantastic clothing by the ever-active human imagination?

This is a novel of many characters, switching back and forth between different points of view: a young widow with an abusive past and a yen for paleontology; her son, who baffles her with his strange rituals and emotional distance; their working-class radical nurse-companion; a twisted genius of a surgeon; his less-brilliant, but extremely kind friend; a brisk country vicar struggling to conquer superstition in his parish and unholy longings in himself; his tubercular wife, beset by visions; and many others.

The premise sounded irresistible to me, yet even though The Essex Serpent had all the ingredients for a book I ought to love, I had a hard time warming to it somehow. Perhaps this was partly because the constant switching of perspective also made it hard for me to settle into the story. Certain threads and relationships were not developed as much as I would have liked, as the zigzagging plot kept dropping one to pick up another. I remained oddly distant from the characters, and sometimes had the sensation of being told rather than shown about their characteristics; they felt intellectually constructed out of era-appropriate ingredients (paleontology, advances in medical science, religious doubt, consumption, sexual repression, etc.) rather than spontaneously living.

Unsettling is definitely what The Essex Serpent is all about, though, so perhaps this is an appropriate effect. And at the end, suddenly, the characters came together in a way that surprised me, bringing them to life more vividly. If the book had gone on from there for another hundred pages or so, I might have felt more connected to it.

I don’t know why the alchemy of this book did not quite work for me, and you may have a completely different reaction. I hope you will read it to find out for yourself, and please let me know what you thought.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins for the opportunity to review this book. For more information, visit the tour page or click on the links below.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photo by Jamie Drew

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich. The Essex Serpent is her American debut.

Find out more about Sarah at her website, and connect with her on Twitter.


Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews

Margery Sharp, Britannia Mews (1946)

For the third year in a row, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a birthday celebration in honor of the author Margery Sharp, to encourage everyone to read and enjoy her witty, entertaining novels. As Jane notes in her announcement post, for the first time in quite a while many of these are now easier to find (at least for those of us with e-readers) since ten of them have been released as e-books by Open Road Media. I took advantage of this fact to snag the only one that wasn’t already checked out from my library, Britannia Mews. It turned out to be the perfect book to beguile me for a few wintry hours, immersing me in the titular London neighborhood and its colorful cast of characters.

Though not a long novel, it takes us over a span of many years, from the Victorian age to the second world war, following the life of the central character, Adelaide. From a sheltered young girl who defies her parents with an ill-advised elopement, she evolves into a strong woman who has weathered many ups and downs of life, and learned one of its most essential lessons: there’s no use in trying to escape, because you always take yourself with you. With such a theme, it’s appropriate that the book is named after the run-down former stable area that Adelaide’s upwardly mobile family once moved away from, but that drew her back and would not let her go. Accepting her fate leads to some unexpected transformations, both in Adelaide and in the Mews.

The latter part of the book leaves Adelaide in the background to focus on her niece, Dodo, who is coming of age in a very different era leading up to the Second World War. Still, the need to find a sense of integrity is timeless, and Dodo goes through her own process of growth. Along the way she discovers some (but not all) of the secrets that lurk in her family cupboard, as Sharp slyly makes us question which truths really matter.

The pace of the novel never lets up, and the large jumps in time make it feel a bit breathless occasionally. Overall, though, Sharp makes it work, and packs a huge variety of incident and plot, and also of thought and passion and artistry, into a remarkably compact space — not unlike the Mews themselves.

I enjoyed every page of this delightful book, probably my favorite Margery Sharp so far. What’s yours?


The Pleasure of the Journey: Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)

Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced courtesy of the artist
Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced by permission of the artist

This summer, I finally read the comic classic Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. As I had found references to its characters and incidents in several other books (notably To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis), there was much that was familiar to me, and I almost had a feeling of deja vu as I recognized them. The Hampton Court maze! The pineapple tin! The tow-ropes! Montmorency! They seemed like old friends, even as I was encountering them for the first time.

Yet there were still some surprises, chief among which was the fact that Jerome doesn’t always write in the same humorous vein. There are some lyrical and sentimental passages, which I was not sure whether to take as parody or as serious relief, so to speak, from the hilarity of other sections.

Indeed, the book as a whole was more digressive and varied than I had expected. The main narrative thread — the author and his two friends (to say nothing of the dog) are taking a restorative trip down the Thames — often serves merely as an excuse for Jerome to muse about matters large and small: earlier trips on the river, the peculiarities of one’s friends, canine habits, etc. I suspect that if the passages that relate to the actual “present-day” journey of the three-men-in-a-boat were extracted, they would occupy a very slim volume on their own.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s precisely Jerome’s free-associating, wide-ranging comic/lyric/philosophic ramblings that provide the pleasure of this reading experience. If you’re impatient to get to the goal, you’ve missed the point of the journey.

I’m counting this for the Adventure category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. And if you think boating on the Thames is not adventurous enough, just read the part about the pineapple tin.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adventure Classic
Classics Club List #42


In the Shadow of Victoria: Three Childhood Memoirs

Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (1952)

Angela Thirkell, Three Houses (1931)

Diana Holman-Hunt, My Grandmothers and I (1960)


What do these three authors have in common? As well as being distinguished writers, artists and critics in their own right, they share the distinction of having famous Victorian grandfathers: Charles Darwin, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Holman-Hunt, respectively.  Their memoirs of childhood give us wonderful insights into the family lives of these great men and into the domestic details of a whole era, pictured even as it’s vanishing into the modern world that we ourselves inherited from their descendants.

Title page illustration

Period Piece is the most delightful of the three, funny and sharply observed. Though Charles Darwin died before his granddaughter Gwen was born in 1885, he left a large and eccentric family behind, who provide many entertaining moments with their fads and hypochondria, as well as halcyon times at their beloved Down House (which you can visit today). Thematic chapters with titles such as “Education,” “Propriety,” “Ghosts and Horrors,” “Religion” and “Society” affectionately poke fun at the habits of our ancestors. The line drawings by Raverat herself, who became a master wood engraver, add considerably to the humor. This is a lovely book to curl up with on a rainy day or whenever you need cheering up. It’s also a priceless window into a byegone age, by an artist with a very observant eye.

Burne-Jones with his granddaughter Angela

Novelist Angela Thirkell, born in 1890, did have a few years with her grandfather, the artist Edward Burne-Jones, before his death, and her account of him in Three Houses is warm and loving. Its three sections are arranged according to the three houses of her early life, and by far the longest section is devoted to the Burne-Jones holiday retreat near Brighton, where the few weeks she spent each summer made a disproportionate impression. The brief and gently episodic narrative has many wonderful details that bring the great artist to life, such as when he is so rent by the sight of Angela with her face to the wall, “expiating some sin,” that the next day he takes his paint box and paints her “a cat, a kitten playing with its mother’s tail, and a flight of birds, so that I might never be unhappy or without company in my corner again.” Another famous relative and neighbor is Rudyard Kipling, her cousin, whom she heard tell his Just So Stories: “a poor thing in print compared with the fun of hearing them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice.”

Holman-Hunt’s “The Father’s Leavetaking”

In My Grandmothers and I, writer and art critic Diana Holman-Hunt provides an acerbic contrast to these nostalgic reminiscences, as her own childhood was not so rosy. Shuttled from the house of one grandmother to the other, “like a parcel” as she says herself, she lives in a strange world of alternating luxury and neglect. Though her grandfather, painter William Holman-Hunt, is dead, his widow (known as Grand) keeps his legacy fiercely alive, while paying little attention to the needs of the living girl in her house. Her obsession gives rise to tragicomic scenes, such as Grand hectoring tourists who are trying to look at “The Light of the World” in St. Paul’s, and a tea party where each cup is factitiously labeled with a famous visitor’s name (Rossetti, Millais, and so on). Born on the eve of the Great War and well out of the Victorian age, Diana tells her discomforting story with a sharper humorous edge that keeps the reader at a distance. When there’s laughter here, it’s very close to despair.

Period Piece and My Grandmothers and I were recently reprinted by the marvelous Slightly Foxed Editions. The hardcover editions are unfortunately sold out, but paperbacks may be available. Three Houses is newly available from Allison and Busby. For anyone with an interest in the period, its art, and its people, all three are a must.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Nonfiction

Victoriana, Early and Late: Coronation Summer and Drawn from Memory

Angela Thirkell, Coronation Summer (1937)

Ernest Shepard, Drawn from Memory (1957)

Angela Thirkell comedyBy chance, I recently picked up two books that happened to be set at the beginning and near the end of Victoria’s reign. One was fiction, one non, but both were entertaining glimpses of that endlessly fascinating era.

It all started because my library didn’t have any of the Barsetshire novels by Angela Thirkell that I wanted, but they did have Coronation Summer, her early novel of the weeks surrounding Victoria’s coronation, which sounded delicious. The somewhat elaborate conceit is that when the pseudonymous Ingoldsby Legends come out, a young woman who thinks they are by a real acquaintance of hers reads a satirical poem about the coronation, and takes it at face value. This inspires her to remember how she and her best friend went to London for the event, which had proved to be a turning point in their personal lives as well as that of the nation.

The period pastiche was well done and often very amusing. I was impressed by Thirkell’s ability to imitate Victorian diction, while smiling at her sly references to other authors (and I’m sure there are many others that I missed). This is a very literate book, unlike many of the neo-Victorian and Regency novels that are being churned out today. However, I had a hard time warming up to the narrator, who is an empty-headed girl, thoughtlessly cruel to her servants, with nothing on her mind but suitors and the social whirl. As a side character to poke fun at she would have been perfect, but as the main character she was lacking in sympathetic qualities. Her romance was dull, not only because it was a foregone conclusion — the main story is told as a reminiscence after her marriage — but because the young man in question had almost no personality; his rival, a ridiculous dandy, was more interesting though no more likeable. One could perhaps detect some subtle social commentary in there, but mainly the book seemed a waste of good writing on such (to me) unworthy characters.

(By the way, if you pick up Coronation Summer hoping to have a ringside view of the actual coronation itself, you’ll be disappointed — only the men of the story attend and our female narrator is just waiting outside while the event takes place.)

Shepard drawing sketch
A sketch by Shepard

I then turned to a book from the other end of Victoria’s reign, Drawn from Memory, which I was pleased to discover was in my library after I read a highly laudatory post over at The Captive Reader. This is a memoir by the artist most famous for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, though his main work was as a political cartoonist for Punch. Here are his amazingly detailed reminiscences, from seventy years later, of an upper-middle-class London boyhood. Shepard was seven years old in the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and gives a memorable account of the festivities from the point of view of a small boy. Other episodes include a holiday at a farm, family theatrics, and a first visit to a pantomime. Scenes involving a household of eminently Victorian aunts provide comic highlights.

The drawings plentifully scattered throughout are of course delightful, and a few samples of work done at this early age are astoundingly accomplished, fully justifying Shepard’s father’s opinion that his son should be an artist (although he himself wanted to be something a bit more exciting). There’s no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.

Knowledge of the sorrow and death to come later in life does not overshadow the childish joys recorded in these pages, but a few indications of what is to come give Shepard’s sunny memories increased poignancy. For anyone interested in the period, or simply in revisiting the lost world of childhood, Drawn from Memory is an unqualified pleasure.

Review of Drawn from Memory at The Captive Reader