Book – As a fan of historical fiction, I was lucky to recently discover the work of Sarah Waters whose novels include: Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith, set in the Victorian era. Additionally, the notable The Night Watch (WWII) and her most recent work The Paying Guests (WWI), are set during or directly after world wars.
Fingersmith tells the story of Sue, a seventeen-year-old orphan living in Victorian London, brought up by and among, professional thieves. A frequent visitor to her home, known to her only as “Gentleman” hatches a plot to steal the fortune of young woman, Maud Lilly. Gentleman proposes Sue help him secure the fortune by posing as a lady’s maid in Maud’s home. Maud lives a secluded life on her scholarly uncle’s country estate, where she acts as his secretary, but otherwise leads a rather aimless, dull existence. Maud agrees to assist Gentleman in exchange for a cut of Maud’s fortune, which Sue hopes to use to pay back her adoptive mother, Mrs. Sucksby. An unexpected bond and attachment forms between Sue and Maud, which threatens Gentleman’s plan as well as the rather meager lives both young women have come to accept for themselves.
This is a novel full of twists, turns and unexpected developments. Fans of Victorian literature (in particular Charles Dickens) are sure to appreciate Fingersmith, not simply because of the Victorian era setting, but because the book reads in the manner of classic Dickens novels, only with a modern twist. Readers familiar with Dickens will find his writing style reflected in Waters’s style: the use of memorable, humorous names, and a talent for creating mystery and suspense. Readers will also note Dickensian themes such as, a focus on social class, a preoccupation with orphans and their misfortune, and complex portrayals of the story’s villains. Fingersmith is long, but the plot twists and character reveals make for a thoroughly engaging read.
Book – Sometimes, it’s easy to know from the outset whether a book will be a good fit or not. Such is the case with The Gentlemen, a book about a vain Victorian poet who meets the Devil at a masquerade ball, accidentally sells his wife’s soul in exchange for poetic inspiration and consequently launches an expedition (peopled by his bluff adventuring brother-in-law, his scandalous sister, a shy mad scientist and a stalwart butler) to Hell to retrieve her. If that premise sounds as delightful to you as it did to me, you’ll love the book; if not, don’t bother. Simple as that.
Forrest Leo’s language in The Gentleman is perfectly Victorian, his parodistic humor is spot-on for the absurd, over-the-top story he’s looking to tell, and the steampunk elements of his universe are used sparingly and well. While reading, there was a moment when I feared I would feel cheated by the ending, but I was happily mistaken in that. If I had to quibble, I wouldn’t have minded a little more swashbuckling action. Overall, however, The Gentleman was a delightfully silly, light, fast-paced, fun first novel, with a great and original premise, from a clearly talented young writer. I can’t wait to see what he writes next!
TV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.
Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.
Book – Divorce in England became available to the middle class for the first time in 1858, and one of the first cases was that of Robinson v. Robinson & Lane. Henry Robinson had read his wife’s diary while she was ill, and discovered it full of stories about her passionate love affair with a handsome young doctor. He sued for divorce as soon as he was able. Isabella Robinson’s defense argued that the diary was a work of fantasy and none of the affairs had actually happened. The court took three months to reach a verdict, and meanwhile the case became a sensation. Excerpts of Mrs. Robinson’s diary were printed in the papers – a lucky stroke for historian Kate Summerscale, as the actual diary has vanished.
Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace immerses you in the world of a middle-class Victorian housewife who desperately longs for something more in her life. The book reads almost like a novel, following first the events of Isabella Robinson’s diary and then those of the trial, while also describing the surrounding world – the mania for diary-writing, the salaciousness of the press, the nervousness about the new divorce courts. For those who want more of the same, Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter is a fictional tale of Victorian divorce which references the Robinson case.