The Impossible Life of Mary Benson: Rodney Bolt

★★★★½

The Extraordinary Story of a Victorian Wife

On 23 June 1859, eighteen-year-old Minnie Sidgwick married her distant cousin Edward Benson. The couple had known each other since Minnie was a little girl and Edward had hoped to marry her ever since she was eleven, when he had admired her brightness of spirit and her intelligence. Perhaps marriages of this kind did sometimes prove to be happy. But not this one. Minnie, or Mary as she became as an adult woman, passed from being an anxious, eager-to-please daughter to being an anxious, daunted wife. As her husband vaulted up the ecclesiastical hierarchy, Mary Benson played the role of dutiful clergyman’s wife, culminating in the greatest challenge of all: the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But who was this woman who stood behind one of the most influential men in the land? And why should we care about her? In this utterly engaging biography, Rodney Bolt brings together family documents, diaries, letters, novels and contemporary material to give us a deep and absorbing picture of an extraordinary woman whose experiences offer a fascinating picture of the Victorian age.

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

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The Children’s Book: A.S. Byatt

★★★★★

In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax, ‘I aten’t dead’. On the contrary, I’m clawing my way out of a period dominated by the noble (but absolutely demented) effort of writing an exhibition catalogue, from scratch, including research, in three months. (A word of advice: don’t ever do this.) There’s been lots of other stuff going on, some delightful, some rather gloomy, but holidays are now less than a month away and I’m starting to get a grip. I have been reading and seeing operas and concerts and plays, and I fully intend to write about as much as I can remember through the fog. First up is an easy one: I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I first read ten years ago and which enchanted me just as much second time around. Byatt is a rare writer: erudite, intellectual, compelling and technically brilliant, with a profound but unsentimental sense of compassion. I’ve read several of her novels, but The Children’s Book is my favourite for the way it vividly evokes bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century in England. It captures the magic of childhood before going on, ruthlessly, to show how adults create children, only to destroy them.

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Rustication: Charles Palliser

★★★½

Charles Palliser has been on my radar for a long time, although this is the first of his novels that I’ve read. He is famous for his gothic Victorian-style historical fiction and I’ve been keeping an eye out for his magnum opus, The Quincunx, but it just so happens that Rustication cropped up in my local second-hand bookshop the other day. Couched in true Victorian fashion as a rediscovered manuscript, it’s told in diary format, unveiling the story of Richard Shenstone. In winter 1863 Richard returns home from Cambridge, whence he has been ignominiously expelled (a fact he chooses to keep quiet for now), hoping for an indulgent welcome from his sister and recently widowed mother. Their newly straitened circumstances have brought his mother to a bleak, windswept, isolated house on the edge of a salt-marsh. As if the location wasn’t grim enough, Richard swiftly realises that he isn’t quite as welcome as he thought he’d be. Worse still, he isn’t the only one who’s hiding something, and he’s about to find that no one can be trusted.

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The Corset: Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

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The Fortune Hunter: Daisy Goodwin

★★★

Every time I go to Austria, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of Sisi memorabilia that’s on sale. The Empress Elizabeth isn’t as iconic a figure here in England and I really know very little about her, except that her life wasn’t a very happy one, so I hoped that this novel might give me a bit more insight into a compelling historical figure. Set in 1875, it focuses on the avid horsewoman’s visit to England for the hunting season, and her alleged romantic liaison with the dashing cavalry officer ‘Bay’ Middleton. Honestly, I can’t say I know massively more now than I did before, as this turned out to be a romantic novel with its credentials worn proudly on its sleeve – mainly interested in burning glances across ballrooms – but it made for a pleasant enough distraction.

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Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Cameron: Sadness (Ellen Terry)

(until 20 May 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shouldering up against the wall, the girl turns her face away from the light. We catch her in an unguarded moment, her blouse slipping off her shoulder and her hair mussed, her fingers tangling in her necklace. This is the celebrated actress Ellen Terry at the age of seventeen, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron during her brief, ill-suited marriage to the much older painter George Frederick Watts. It isn’t a portrait but an allegory, titled Sadness, and Cameron gives us the impression of trespassing on something deeply personal. It’s one of the most arresting images from a clutch of wonderful mid-Victorian photographs currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, tracing the early days of this art form through the works of four pioneers: Cameron herself; her teacher Oscar Rejlander; Lewis Carroll; and the ‘amateur’ artist Lady Clementine Hawarden.

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Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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The Crow Garden: Alison Littlewood

★★★

In 1856, the young doctor Nathaniel Kerner makes his way north to Crakethorne Manor in Yorkshire: his first placement as an alienist or mad-doctor. He hopes to find an asylum full of progressive ideas and enlightened leadership, but it soon transpires that the enlightened spa treatments and extensive gardens described in the brochures are fictions. Instead Crakethorne is governed by the unstable Dr Chettle, who eschews modern notions of treatment in favour of the questionable science of phrenology. His new home isn’t all that Nathaniel would have wished. And yet there is one aspect which captures his imagination: Victoria Adelina Harleston, his beguiling patient.

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The Wicked Cometh: Laura Carlin

★★★

In the dark streets of early 19th-century Holborn, people are disappearing. Men, women and children vanish on their way home from work or after a pint in the pub. As the smogs thicken in the narrow streets, orphaned Hester White studies the handbills pasted up on the dank walls, begging for news of lost loved ones. It’s a bleak time to be poor in London and, when Hester suffers an accident near Smithfield Market, and is swept off for recuperation in the house of a wealthy surgeon, she thinks that she has escaped the dark belly of the underworld once and for all. Little does she know that she is only being drawn deeper into danger. A tale of Gothic threat and forbidden love, this novel reads like a cross between Sarah Waters and Grand Guignol.

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