I’m blaming it on The Last Dickens, which I picked up while on vacation and stuck without anything to read. I had steered clear of historical fiction, particularly historical mystery fiction, for a long time, but now I’m back and drawn to the 19th century. I’m also trying to stay true to my project of going through the library shelves and, since Cox is in the Cs, it was read this now or wait until the project was over.
A note unrelated to the actual text. It is amazing the different iterations of cover art. This particular version contains a black and white image of what looks to be a generic sort of Victorian brick building, maybe an estate, but on closer inspection, the building itself is quite intriguing because the steps are flanked by stone greyhounds. Yes, greyhounds rather than lions. It’s Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire and the photograph comes from the Marsden Archives, which features the fantastic and supernatural. Interesting choice for the cover art here.
In medieval art, dogs signify loyalty, which is a theme in this novel. Young Esperanza “Alice” Gorst comes to Evenwood in Northhamptonshire on an undefined mission from her guardian, Madame de l’Orme, and tutor, Mr. Thornhaugh, to secure the position of and serve as lady’s maid to Landy Tansor, whose story and two sons intrigue young Alice. Madame de l’Orme promises Esperanza that she will outline the details of her mission in three letters to be delivered by the end of the year. All she knows to start is that she is to get as close to Lady Tansor as possible, while watching her own back.
Lady Tansor is widowed, but she mourns not her husband, rather her fiance and youthful love, a dreadful poet, Phoebus Daunt, who had been named heir to the Tansor fortune in light of Lord Tansor’s lack of a son. Daunt had been murdered, reputedly by his school friend, Edward Glyver, who then disappeared from history. Emily Carteret, whose own father had recently been murdered in a suspected theft, was subsequently chosen by Lord Tansor as his heir and she left promptly for Europe to mourn and returned with a Polish husband and infant son. Esperanza’s father was Edwin Gorst, now buried in Paris alongside her mother, who died shortly after her birth. Madame de l’Orme, a family friend & herself a widow, undertook to raise Esperanza.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. What is fun is that, even though the major plot line is clear early on, several of the twists are not and Cox manages to leave the trail of bread crumbs in an entertaining and suspenseful way. Esperanza is so loyal to her mission that she betrays a growing sense of friendship and her own heart in order to accomplish it. Lady Tansor is so loyal to her dead lover that she commits sin after sin in order to carry out his mission. Esperanza, who seems the soul of loyalty, in the end is less loyal than the selfish Lady Tansor, maybe because Esperanza’s mission is carried out for her late father, who is revealed to have been less loyal than Esperanza might have hoped.
Cox engages in some of the Da Vinci Code methodology that has become de rigor for historical mystery and includes footnotes regarding Victorian literature and names, which throws an oddly scholarly edge to a novel that is written as a first-person account of this undefined mission.
It’s a good historical mystery read that privileges the love relationship over that of mere friendship and that provides several twists and turns to keep it all interesting, and this in the first person. Not an easy task.