Best for: Those looking for a Victorian-set novel about England that isn’t happy and (spoiler alert) doesn’t end in a happy romance.
In a nutshell: Alex Chase is miserable and cannot find a way to be happy.
“The despair that invades an undeveloped being is the blackest in the world, because of its utter want of perspective.”
“What do girls want to write to one another for? They can’t have anything to say.”
“One suffered until one could bear no more, and then it was all numbness and inertia.”
Why I chose it:
There is an amazing bookshop in London called Persephone Books. They are not just a shop; they publish works as well, focusing primarily on forgotten female authors. I visited earlier this year and snapped up three books; this is the first I’ve gotten around to reading.
This book is not for those going through a rough patch. It does not end on a high note, and there isn’t much along the way to make the reader feel hopeful. But at the same time, it feels honest, as not all people experience a life that is full of happiness, or redemption, or joy.
Alex is the eldest of three girls and two boys, and is being raised in a Victorian home that is clearly well-off (her father is, in fact, a sir). We meet Alex when she is just 12 years old, and she is clearly emotionally distraught. She craves attention and seems only to think to find it by misbehaving. Not intentionally so much; she just doesn’t think about the consequences (see what I did there) of her actions. When her lack of thought leads to her sister being seriously injured, she is sent to a convent for education.
At the convent she receives an education but does not make friends, and receives negative attention (if she receives any at all). She is painfully awkward, and unable to make the connections she craves. She is infatuated with a fellow classmate who barely acknowledges her existence until she realizes that Alex might be a good social connection.
That friendship never pans out, and when Alex is of age to come out to society, she doesn’t find much success. Her mother seems to care, as does her father, although her father throughout the book says some very heartless things. No one seems to care much that Alex is clearly distraught and depressed; Alex herself is often unable to articulate her own wants and fears. Part of that stems from the Victorian era, and part of that I think stems from piss-poor parenting.
She clings to anyone who might give her attention, eventually leading her to join a convent but unfortunately things do not improve for her. The last hundred pages or so are rough to read, not because they are poorly written, but because Alex continues to experience such an inability to navigate the world she lives in.
As I said, it is not a happy book, but I think it is good enough that I can recommend it to those who might find the premise interesting.