This is a guest post by Sharayah Pranger
To be perfectly honest, I was a bit hesitant to read Debra Brown’s Companion of Lady Holmeshire, as I am not typically drawn to the genre of Victorian-era novels. When I had to read Jane Eyre for a college class last year I was determined not to enjoy it, but as much as I fought it I ended up intrigued. A similar situation occurred as I read Debra Brown’s debut novel. The first two chapters or so were difficult to get into, and I found myself cringing at the conversation and descriptions- not because the writing lacked anything, but because I am a book snob and have to be convinced otherwise once I’ve decided not to enjoy a story!
The Companion of Lady Holmeshire convinced me otherwise. Where the subject matter put me off, the skillful interweaving of multiple plot lines and clever narration brought me back.
The book focuses on Emma Carrington, a young servant who has been selected by the widowed Lady Winifred Holmeshire to be “finished” in London and returns to become her personal companion. Emma is a girl of mysterious origins, having been (supposedly) deposited as an infant on the doorstep of Squire Carrington. Brought up with kindness but little affection, Emma is generally reserved although clever and quick-witted.
Emma, however, suffers somewhat from what I call “Perfect Girl Syndrome”. (See a previous review discussing this syndrome here.) Perhaps it is a personal vendetta against female protagonists who are just too perfect, but a book will be hard pressed to keep my interest when the female protagonist is unrealistically pure of heart. In particular I’m talking about the ones whose flaws are not actually flaws at all. Emma, for example, is too humble. Too loyal to her mistress. Too grateful for her fortunate circumstances, to the point that she turns down the opportunity for personal happiness because she does not want to oppose Lady Holmeshire’s wishes. She is conflicted, to be sure, but sometimes, as an imperfect female reader, I desire to see those female protagonists act rashly. It’s much more interesting to watch a character make a mistake and suffer the consequences than to simply watch them struggle in their mind but then make the “right” choice with relative ease, every time. Perhaps this is a bit cruel of me, but as a feature that usually causes me to reject romances in general, it is worth noting.
Emma is redeemed somewhat by the inner turmoil that is lightly evidenced during various difficult decisions that she must make. Being the type of reader that I am, I would have liked to see more of her inner struggle, to be assured that she was experiencing significant (read: realistic) moral and psychological difficulty when making her decisions. In Emma’s defense, it is not until very late in the novel that a reason is presented for Emma’s exceptionally good behavior. However, by this point her behavior has been so exceptional that I am at first inclined to disbelieve the explanation, because it is indicative of some character traits that would be rather difficult to hide or suppress. (Feel free to speculate upon what I’m talking about… to find out you will have to read it for yourself!)
My own little issues with female protagonists aside, Emma is surrounded by far more interesting characters that contribute to (and expand) the mystery surrounding her origins. One of several sub-plots follows Charles Scott and his son and daughter-in-law, who are lower-class (and somewhat crass) individuals with an eye on Holmeshire money, which they believe is rightfully theirs. Their story slowly unravels between the fancy teas and polite conversation of high London society, lending a dirtier, much-needed intrigue. Debra Brown weaves this plot skillfully throughout, revealing only little mysterious tidbits at a time, an excellent tactic for keeping readers such as myself interested.
And of course… what Victorian novel would be complete without a little romance? A charming sub-plot follows new servant Anna, who has fallen in love with a young, unnamed footman at the castle where the Holmeshires (and Emma) are visiting for the London Season. She fancifully considers them akin to Romeo and Juliet, as the castle servants are hostile to the Holmeshire servants and are making it nigh impossible for them to pursue their love at first sight. Their story is silly, to say the least, as Anna insists upon marrying the footman before she even knows his name, but rather than becoming an annoying cliche, it lends some light-hearted fun to the story that otherwise grows progressively darker, and the reader will find herself cheering for the young, starry-eyed couple.
The main romantic plot focuses on young Lord Wills, Lady Winifred’s son and heir to the Holmeshire estate. He has been betrothed since childhood to Genevieve, who at 21 and still without an engagement ring feels certain that she is doomed to die an old maid. Wills is a new member of Parliament with designs on entirely revamping “the system” in favor of better conditions for the poor.
The Companion of Lady Holmeshire is a light and entertaining read- bemoaning the plight of the working class is as deeply as the book delves. The pitiable conditions of the poor are on multiple occasions contrasted with the decadence of the rich, most memorably when Wills surprises Genevieve with a trip into the very slums of London, where she is for the first time shocked to experience their deplorable circumstances firsthand. Were it not evident that the book itself is meant to be a fun and breezy twirl through Victorian London, I myself would bemoan the way that the working class is presented- the only characterization aside from the servants (who are all, for the most part, rather catty and gossipy although generally good-hearted) comes in the form of the Scotts, who are presented as scheming and money-hungry for the majority of the book. However, the book is clearly not meant to be a social commentary beyond making a point of drawing attention to the very generalized plight of the poor (particularly those forced into the unfortunate workhouses). The issue of the lower classes becomes a catalyst for the most important events of the book to take place, and becomes a place of common ground for several key characters.
I am critical of many aspects of the book, in part because I am critical of Victorian-era literature in general (and in part because I have to use my English degree SOMEHOW), but also because I believe it breaks through the criticism and still proves itself to be an enjoyable read. There is an extensive cast of characters, many of whom are charming, quick-witted, easy to like, or fun to dislike. There is a level of ambiguity to many of the main characters that enhances (and is enhanced by) the scandal and intrigue that slowly unravels throughout the various plots, all of which tie up nicely together at the end with the denouement of the final little mystery (whatever happened to Lady Holmeshire’s missing bracelet?) that will make even the most critical reader crack a smile.
You might like The Companion of Lady Holmeshire by Debra Brown if you like: romance, mystery, Victorian-era literature, light reading, or Shakespeare.
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