Lily – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus 2021)

I haven’t read Rose Tremain for 8 years since I discovered her via her 1989 publication “Restoration”.  I absolutely loved it and it ended up in my Top 3 books for 2013. For some reason I’ve not got round to her novel from a decade later “Music & Silence” which I have had on my shelves for some years.  On reading the description of this, her latest and 16th novel, I felt it was time to revisit her as an author.

Nineteenth century settings are always going to win me over.  We start with an abandoned baby in an East London park at night and wolves who chew off her toe.  She is rescued by a Police Constable and taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  This is the story of the first 17 years of Lily’s life.

Subtitled “A Tale Of Revenge” we know from early on that guilt hangs over the young girl.  She sees herself as a murderer but we don’t know who or why.  The story is told in a third person narrative from her past and her present as a 17 year old employed as a wigmaker.  Some of these switches are a little abrupt I felt which tended to jar rather than build up the suspense as intended.

I was totally captivated by Lily’s story.  I really enjoyed the author’s writing style, use of language and ability to bring Lily’s world to life with some great characterisation.  It did, however, feel a slighter more understated work than I was expecting, plot-wise it hovers towards the sentimental and predictable and I felt disappointed that some plot-lines fizzled out.  Since finishing the book I read an interview with Rose Tremain in The Daily Telegraph Review section (30/10/21) where it is described as a recovery novel following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis which has led to her not being able to retain as much historical research as she has in the past which might explain the route she decided to take with this book.  She also says an initial inspiration came from hallucinations from drugs she was taking or anti-nausea which conjured up Victorian type children asking her for help.

I relished the writing and story-telling here.  It’s not going to end up in my end of year Top 10 like “Restoration” but I was certainly rooting for Lily throughout.

Lily is published by Chatto & Windus in the UK on 4th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale (2012)

Kate Summerscale is responsible for the true crime classic “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008) in which she took a case from 1860 and provided us with a leisurely trawl through all the facts and relevant documents in a highly readable, engrossing style.  I was just as impressed by 2016’s “The Wicked Boy” which featured an 1895 crime involving a thirteen year old.  I was aware at the time that I had skipped reading this work which arrived between  the crime studies but I have now put that right.

This is, on the surface, more sedate than the lurid crimes I’ve enjoyed Summerscale re-exploring.  Subtitled “The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady” this is the true tale of an 1858 divorce which got much press attention at the time.  It took place in the very early days following the 1857 Divorce Act which feasibly made it easier for married couples to go their separate ways.  This, of course, being the Victorian era means the odds are stacked very much against the woman who faces complete loss of reputation should adultery be proved.

Enter Mrs Isabella Robinson.  The author cleverly splits the background, much of which come from Robinson’s diaries from the court proceedings which bases its evidence almost exclusively from the same diaries and weaves a tale of infatuation and illicit romance.  Whilst living in Edinburgh, Isabella, trapped in a fairly loveless marriage to a husband who cares more for her money meets Henry Lane, a younger married man.  Their children strike up a friendship and this is used as a pretext for home visits, excursions and longer holidays.  Isabella becomes besotted with Lane over a period of years during which time he becomes a doctor and opens a health spa to which prominent Victorians, including Charles Darwin, become regular patients.  Mrs Robinson, as can be guessed from the subtitle uses her diary to confess her affair.  This is discovered by her husband (under Victorian law it is his property anyway) and legal proceedings ensue.  Was Isabella Robinson recording actual events or letting her imagination run away with her?

There’s a lot at stake here and Summerscale has carried out extensive research both of the details of the case and the context, which pretty much fits into what we now acknowledge as the double standards of Victorian society. 

It has all been done very well and once again is very readable but on this occasion the case lacks the punch of those in her other books I’ve read so did not create such a strong impression.  As an example of a thoroughly researched study into Victorian life it is highly illuminating.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace was first published by Bloomsbury in 2012