|Another beautiful Virago cover. It's Regina Cordium: Alice Wilding by Dante Gabriel Rosetti|
Written in 1899, this is the intertwining story of two life-long friends, Rachel West and Hester Gresley. Rachel was the daughter of a self-made man who lost his money to an unscrupulous business partner. As a young woman, Rachel struggled to make a living as a secretary and then suddenly became an heiress when the remorseful partner left his fortune to her. She's had her heart broken and is wary of loving again until she met Sir Hugh Scarlett, a dashing man-about-town with a past. He'd been trying to disentangle himself from a love affair when he met Rachel, and the repercussions from the affair continually haunt his attempts to win Rachel.
Rachel's oldest friend, Hester Gresley, comes from an old family whose fortunes have declined, but she's done quite well for herself as a writer. After the death of an aunt, Hester has moved in with her brother's family in the country. James Gresley is a minister and a pompous know-it-all (he does a lot of mansplaining in the novel), and though Hester loves his brood of children, she doesn't get on all that well with his wife. Hester is working hard on a new novel despite the distractions of nosy country neighbors, her judgmental brother, and a houseful of kids. Like most Victorian novels, everyone knows everyone else, and Rachel's story keeps overlapping with Hester's. There's a lot going on in this novel but it really captured my interest and once I got going, I zoomed through it in just a few days.
One could describe this as a satire, but it's also a feminist novel. There are also bits that remind me of a Victorian sensation novel, but much better written and with far better character development. Parts of this book are extremely witty. I can't quote the best lines because they would ruin the plot, but here is an example. A minor character named Sybell Odom is throwing a country fete and is welcoming the country society:
Sybell raised her eyebrows, and advanced with the prettiest air of empressement to meet her unexpected guests. No, clearly it was impossible that the two women should like each other. They were the same age, about the same height and coloring; their social position was too similar; their historic houses too near each other. Lady Newhaven was by far the best looking, but that was not a difference which attracted Sybell towards her. On this occasion Sybell's face assumed its most squirrel-like expression, for, as ill-luck would have it, they were dressed alike.
This was a surprise success for its author, Mary Cholmondeley. Sadly, none of her novels (including this one) are in print any longer, but they're all available for free downloads from Project Gutenberg and on iBooks. It's a shame that nobody reads this novel any more because I thought it was just brilliant. I'm quite sure this will make my list of top reads at the end of the year.
I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.