Thanks to Erin Sinesky Lovett, Assistant Director of Publicity at W. W. Norton & Company, who sent along an advance copy of Michael Cox's The Glass of Time, a Neo-Victorian sensation novel in the manner of Sarah Waters's wonderful Fingersmith. Cox, author of a biography of M. R. James, has produced a real page turner that easily kept me from writing the dozen or so scholarly book reviews I am supposed to be doing!
Cox certainly has a firm grasp of what Katherine Lesch has termed the "the Victorian woman's revenge fantasy." I particularly liked the way he closely follows Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Brontë's Jane Eyre, Gaskell's North and South, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh when he has a poor (supposedly) orphaned girl come into her own, humble her rich love-object, who of course has to experience bankruptcy (Gaskell's Thornton), become blinded (Brontë's Rochester), have his estate burned (Brontë's Rochester and Browning's Leigh) or otherwise find himself crushed before he's worthy of her. Like any Victorian sensation novel, The Glass of Time has too many plot strands, characters, and red herrings to summarize quickly, so I'll just say that it has the usual hidden heinous criminal acts, incriminating or otherwise crucial documents, characters in disguise, illegitimate children, and secret marriages: Miss Esperanza Alice Gorst, an attractive, unusually well-educated young woman, arrives from Paris to take up her position as personal maid for the haughty, beautiful, and oh-so-guilt-ridden Emily, Lady Tansor. The young (and, one assumes, quite beautiful) protagonist has been sent by her French guardian, Madame de l'Orme and English tutor — or that's who we think they are for much of the novel — to worm her way into Lady Tansor's confidence, which she does, and after she has settled in at Evenwood, her handlers explain both her complete mission and the reason for it: she is to make the family heir, the handsome, dashing would-be poet Perseus Verney Duport, marry her and thereby restore to her the position as mistrss of Evenwood that her Ladyship has stolen from her father by several murders. In Vyse, we have a villain worthy of Dickens, and in Gully, an equally Dickensian detective. Cox also gives us many lovely touches: outdoing A. S. Byatt's Possession, he creates not one but two Victorian male poets, but Phoebus Daunt, who dies before the novel begins, is a villian, and Perseus Duport, supposed heir to the title, turns out to be a mediocre author, something which his loving, if ever devious, wife fully recognizes.
When I first began the novel, I at first thought, "Oh, oh, the plot is going to come right from Sarah Water's delightful Fingersmith," and of course much of it does. Any reader of Waters will smile with recognition when reading a first-person narrative told by a someone who disguises herself as a maid in order to further a complex plan, though, to be sure, the young woman in Fingersmith comes from much lower down the social scale than does Miss Esperanza Alice Gorst. But like Water's protagonist, Alice also has both male and female mentors; Basil Thornhaugh/Edwin Gorst/Edward Glyver is certaily a match for Water's "Gentleman." Although Cox doesn't have the truly subversive twists on gender found in Waters, twists that completely revise and renovate the sensation genre, he creates enough twists to make a gripping neo-Victorian novel. Like almost all sensation fiction, this book has multiple mysteries at its heart, and like so many Dickensian and other novels, it combines realistic details about setting, dialect, and so on with fantastic plot elements, particularly in the form of coincidences and hidden friends, mentors, guides, and protectors. Where would Alice be without Barrington, Wraxall, and so many others?
The reader of these novels has an experience much like that of someone walking quickly across a plank over an abyss: all goes well, if one doesn't pause and look down. In other words, like all Victorian sensation novels, this modern version of one has a few loose ends: it's both a bit hard to believe — and quite unnecessary to the plot — to have Esperanza/Alice write everything down in an oh-so-dangerously incriminating notebook, which the villainous Vyse, who is suspicious of her from the beginning, certainly would have found when he had her room and possessions searched, something he certainly would have done. Moreover, why do her father and step-mother not let her in on their plot, even from her earliest years: that key twist created by keeping her ignorant of her mission seems more a way of helping the author create surprise than anything else, and I suspect that if Alice, whom Cox portrays as simultaneously scheming and not-so-convincingly innocent, had shared her father's quest for revenge from the beginning, even from her childhood, it would have made her a much more interesting character. Of course, she would have been the protagonist of a very different novel! Another problem that comes to mind upon reflection, though perhaps only after one has closed the book, concerns the character of her father, a man who murders one man and manipulates two wives and his only child all for revenge — someone, in other words, who quite matches Lady Tansor in evil deeds and manipulating others but who, unlike her, never seems to have the slightest remorse.
But, as I said, Cox, who effectively presents the life of a ladies maid and a good deal of other Victoriana, has produced a page turner, a really good read — and one which might send readers back to Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, and Dickens (and possibly also to A. S. Byatt and Sarah Waters as well).
Byatt, A. S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Random House, 1990.
Cox, Michael. The Glass of Time: The Secret Life of Miss Esperanza Gorst Narrated by Herself. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. New York: Riverhead, 2002.