Top positive review
3 people found this helpful
Gripping novel with depth
on 29 September 2014
‘Provided they are accompanied at all times by Rixam, and on no account venture further than the shallows, Papa has given permission for Mr Zedland to take Sophia boating on the Statue Lake.’
Maria McCann’s third novel opens with the conventions of a Regency novel. It could almost be the start of a novel by Georgette Heyer, whose novels I love, and find I am in good company as Margaret Drabble does too. In this opening chapter there is the mannered conversation of the couple on the lake, the French phrases that pepper the speech of the upper classes and the references to the accomplishments of a gentleman and of the copying of Roman statues. The description is more literary than Heyer’s, ‘Heat-haze rising off the water melts her grey satin robe into the surrounding air, and Sophia herself is incense dissolving before the sacred image that is Mr Zedland,’ but the scene is set up for romance and some mystery.
I try to minimise spoilers in plot based novels but some may regard the following spoilerish..
There are three narrative threads following three protagonists in the novel whose stories interweave; Sophia who is Mr Zedland’s fiancé at the start of the novel, Betsy-Ann who is a ‘fly’ coster-monger and Titus, a former slave and Mr Zedland’s gift to Sophia. It is in their opening chapters and in the subsequent unfolding of Sophia’s that Maria McCann’s novel lifts the cover on the world of the Regency novel that tends to provide the contrast to the romps of the upper classes that Heyer’s novels revolve around. What creates a frisson of excitement there - the danger that a lady’s reputation and more could be ruined - is the very core of this novel. At one point Sophia exclaims that a woman cannot be sold in England and yet Sophia becomes a chattel of her husband, her property is his, her place in society precarious once she has left the protection of her father and she starts to discover what sort of man she has married. Titus was literally kidnapped and sold as a slave and Betsey-Ann’s story reveals how she has been subject to being viewed as a commodity all her life; as a fence, a former prostitute and kept woman. Her final ambition is to have a shop, where she can have financial independence and an easier life. All three narratives resolve around The Corinthian, a ne'er do well who carries the title of one of Miss Heyer's novels but is an altogether darker character.
Gaming, cant, grave robbers, the strange code of honour that gentlemen keep - all are unpicked by McCann, but as part of the narrative, not as part of any polemic. Her characters are believable and rounded – those living on their wits are the products of the accident of their birth and their upbringing. When Betsey-Ann looks around her is a street scene her natural sympathy is with the con artists and pickpockets rather than their prey.
A very good novel - strong on story and character and though rich with period detail it carries very lightly the considerable research Maria McCann has obviously undertaken. It has a gentle start but it had me in its grip at about one third in, from when I had to see how things would unfold and was reluctant to put it down.