The Cornish Lady by Nicola Pryce – a surprisingly complex historical novel

A relaxing read set in grand houses and glorious gardens, this is a historical novel of some delicacy with a driving narrative. As Angelica Lilly moves through society and some less than fashionable haunts, the author carefully brings in details of social history, herbal remedies and other aspects of life in the late eighteenth century. This is more than a romantic novel with a historical setting; the main character is a woman who is desperate to make a difference in her world, suspicious of her father, concerned about her brother, imaginative and resourceful. As befits such a novel, she is attractive to many men, wealthy and working alike. Clothes, letters, naval matters and other Austen- era themes make this a readable, always interesting and significant book. I was pleased to be sent a copy to read and review.

In the opening of this book we quickly learn many things about Angelica. She is a wealthy and self willed young woman, who organises an illicit trip to the theatre unknown to her father who is departing with a lady who seems determined to marry him. She is unusually close to the servants in her father’s household which she has run for a number of years, after the death of her beloved mother who started out as a poor actress. Her brother Edgar unexpectedly turns up at the house in the company of the untrustworthy Jacob Boswell, and she wonders if his influence explains why her brother seems so different. As she visits the theatre in disguise she becomes more involved, and is mistaken for an actress with unfortunate results. She cleverly escapes, and encounters the attractive Henry Trevelyan, who proves to be not what he seems. As she visits her friend Amelia ( an unfortunate choice of initial given the main character’s name) she encounters a rich titled man who shows great interest in her, and against a background of various families, social life and civil unrest she makes discoveries which make her rethink many of her assumptions, and begins to realise what she wants from life.

With some nods to the subject matter of some Austen novels and the social themes of Graham’s Poldark, this is a book which could have slipped into a standard romantic historical regency novel. This is a more complex and mature work however, as the concentration is definitely on the female protagonist, who refuses to be swept up easily by the wealthy and eligible suitor without more consideration. I am a fan of the straightforward romance, so was appreciative of the greater scope of this book which features a woman who is resourceful in every sense, rushes to assumptions, and has a character with real depth. There is a lot of research and crucially atmosphere of the time in this book, and it offers a complex read without needing to resort to alternative time periods and other themes. The character of Angelica is well developed, as are several of the other female characters, and the novel offers many interesting perspectives and references to the period. I recommend it as a good read, cleverly constructed and with more substance than would first appear.

 

On Friday we went to the Foundling Museum in London. An institution established in the eighteenth century by Thomas Coram and supported by such as the artist Hogarth and composer Handel, there are some fascinating things to see in settings which were accessible (hurray!) . An institution which took in children who could not be cared for by their mothers, there are some moving things to be seen such as the dozens of tokens left by mothers as they left their babies. The exhibition of Bedrooms of London is just amazing and surprising.