Friday, 28 January 2011

What high hopes I had of Wild Romance for this true Victorian scandal inspired Wilkie Collins, among others, who borrowed from it for his novels No Name and Man and Wife.
And, of course, Chloë Schama - whose first book this is - is the daughter of highly-readable historian Simon Schama. (Only a cynical thought, but what happens to female historians these days if they don't have telegenic good looks?)
Real-life Wilkie Collins?
I'm willing to forgive that novelett-ish book-jacket and prepare to be gripped ...
'Somewhere, across the silvered plane of dimpled water, a ship sounded its horn, and another answered. Theresa Longworth, the teenage daughter of a Manchester silk manufacturer, stood on the deck of the steamer ...'
Oh dear, oh dear.
Too breathless for me, but never mind. In 1852, on that cross-Channel steamer, 19-year-old Theresa enjoys a brief flirtation - and a fumble under the travelling rug - with William Charles Yelverton, a soldier and Irish aristocrat. Some months later, she takes a bold step and starts writing to him and before long she decides that she's in love. So much in love that when Yelverton is posted to the Crimea, she follows to become a lay nurse with an order of nuns. Yelverton, of course, is a cad. When they're apart, he makes some effort to damp down this hysterical passion. But when they meet again, and Theresa is so enthusiastically up for it - and he's having fantasies about her nun's habit ... well, what's a chap to do?
And I'm on Yelverton's side here. Because Theresa is bloody terrifying ... all that pent-up convent-girl energy; we'd call her a stalker today.
Home from the Crimea and they have a clandestine affair and there may/may not have been a pregnancy and illegal abortion. In 1857, they go through a makeshift wedding ceremony in Scotland, followed by another one in Ireland. But in those days the marriage laws of England, Scotland and Ireland didn't tally ... so was either marriage legal? Barely a year later, Charles gets legitimately hitched to a wealthy widow ... and if Theresa is to find her way back into respectable society, she has to prove that she has prior claims.
The courtroom drama that ensued in Dublin is a riveting exposure of Victorian hypocrisy - for how can a wronged woman defend herself without impropriety?
So why does the book go downhill from there? Naturally, Theresa hasn't a hope of achieving respectable marriage to anyone else ... so she feistily takes off to America as a journalist, Fanny Trollope-style, and goes on to travel the world as a New Woman.
Much as I admired her indomitable spirit, though, I'd stopped caring about her - for once the courtroom drama is over, it falls flat and reads too much like a well-researched dissertation.
And though I'm all for feminism, did Charles have to be such a cardboard cut-out? Maybe Chloë Schama's research didn't throw up any more information but it seemed the kneejerk reaction of a young, female writer to cast him so readily as cad and villain.
Come on, men can be victims too, and I'd feel sorry for any chap pursued through a war zone by a highly-sexed Victorian spinster who's impossible to shake off.
Great story ... but she doesn't tell 'em like Wilkie Collins.


Darlene said...

You gave it a shot though. The title alone would have had me running a mile!

mary said...

Dreadful title and cover, Darlene, I agree; the American edition looks better though it's just as misleading as it only reflects the end of her story. Anyway, it was only 1p on Amazon, though it isn't even out in paperback yet.
But it did give me the urge to re-read Wilkie Collins.