Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: A Proper Education for Girls

I often have difficulties with historical novels, especially those set in the 19th century. Something about the voice feels false. This was a lot of the reason I didn't like Geraldine Brooks's March, and I know there have been other books I set aside because I couldn't get past the false Victoriana. Some authors, however, do Victorian well. A.S. Byatt is a perfect example. Her Victorians never seem jarringly overdone.

Elaine diRollo's novel A Proper Education for Girls has likewise succeeded. In 1857, Alice and Lilian Talbot are two loving sister separated by their eccentric, domineering father. After a scandalous affair, Lilian is married to a missionary and sent to India. Her husband, a hypochondriac unable to bear the climate, is no match for her, and soon she is exploring the Indian countryside, painting its plants and learning the Indian customs. Meanwhile, Alice is still at home, looking after her father's Collection. The entire house is overrun with all manner of odd contraptions, art from around the world, display cases of ancient artifacts, and anything else that could possibly qualify as an example of human ingenuity. Guests hang their shirts on a stuffed bear's paws and trip over statues of Greek goddesses. The family in turn trips over the guests--inventors invited to the house to perform their experiments and then forgotten about. Aside from Alice and her father are the elderly female relatives--Mr. Talbot's mother and aunts, who are entirely on Alice's side and who spend their days in the conservatory, which has been filled with tropical plants and is now a blooming hothouse. Alice, with the dubious help of Mr. Blake, the photographer Mr. Talbot hired to photograph the Collection, works to figure out what Lilian is up to in India. In the days leading up to the Indian Mutiny, Lilian learns the skills necessary to travel India alone, and so return to England to save Alice from the extremely sinister plans of her father and his friend Dr. Cattermole.

Alice and Lilian are just two of the fabulous women you know must have been hovering on the edges of Victorian society. They are knowledgeable, capable, and unafraid of flouting traditional gender roles. Alice's lack of traditional femininity, however, proves dangerous. Dr. Cattermole, along with many historical 19th century doctors, believes he can cure perceived social ills (like Alice's independent thought) with surgery. This part of the book is horrifying, frustrating, and fascinating in equal measure. Knowing Elaine diRollo has a PhD in the social history of medicine, you know she's telling a true story. Ultimately, of course, the women prove victorious, which is thoroughly satisfying.

This is a wonderful book. Beautiful and bloody, it paints the Victorian era in more color than we usually see through our vision of sepia-toned old photographs. It makes us aware of the horrible opinions and actions women were sometimes submitted to, and gives us the satisfaction of knowing that in the end, the women won.

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