The book begins with such an extravagantly luscious piece of writing that I thought I couldn’t bear a whole book written in that style - but, though the rest of the book has many arresting images, it is only that opening scene which is written in that flamboyant way. The next handicap was the following scene, in which in a very few pages we are swamped with thirteen characters, nine of them children. (The novel is set in 1887, and Victorians did have very large families). But these chapters introduce, in particular, the children’s mother, Charlotte, whose friendship with Maribel, the central figure of the novel, is most attractively portrayed.
The focus eventually narrows to Maribel and to her husband, Edward Campbell Lowe, who is a passionate Radical Member of Parliament. Their love for each other glows throughout the book. Clare Clark’s note at the end tells us that Edward is closely based on Robert Cunningham Graham, a little-known politician, whose biography she gives. As for Maribel, one puzzling thing that only became known in 1985 about the politician’s wife makes it possible for the author to imagine what might account for that enigma, and most of her story in this novel is pure fiction. Another character, here portrayed as the utterly loathsome Alfred Webster, is modelled on the journalist W.T.Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, founder of lurid and sensational exposures of sexual sleaze, and here, despite espousing radicalism himself, a hate-filled enemy of Edward and Maribel. Others playing a part in the story appear under their own names: John Burns, William and Jane Morris, Annie Besant, Mrs Aveling, Oscar and Constance Wilde, Asquith etc. So this is a novel based on a mass of well-researched political and social history. The distress of the working class, the Fabians and the Socialist League, the Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square, the Irish problem all make their appearance. Victorian photography plays a large part in the story, as does Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show which was the rage of London at the time.
The author goes in for the minutest descriptions of settings and actions (innumerable references to Maribel smoking become quite irritating), and dwells at length on many incidents that have nothing to do with the plot, which as a result moves rather slowly, though, for all that, it does gather pace and tension about half way through.
The plot has two centres: the political career of Edward, and the mystery about Maribel’s past. Why does she say her parents had died when she was a child, when she had just had a letter from her mother? We will discover increasingly surprising aspects of her past, some of which were known to Edward, others that even he did not know. (I do not see how the lies involved can be called “beautiful”). Over and over again the secrets cause Maribel panic and anguish - their physical effects on her described as frequently as is her smoking. Were they revealed, Edward’s political career, already at risk because of his radicalism, would be totally ruined. One feels sure that, what with a couple of moments of carelessness by Maribel and the ruthless probing of Webster, she and Edward are doomed; but I am afraid I found the last two chapters (out of 41) unconvincing.
Slightly too discursive for my taste, this is nevertheless a very interesting and readable book, both for its historical background and for the principal characters who engage one’s sympathy and concern.
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