I was so excited that I won an advanced proof of this book from Goodreads giveaways. The novel’s synopsis seemed rather promising, as it was “inspired by an episode in Henry James’s life.” Basically, a notable Henry James expert and biographer theorized that James had been in love with his cousin, Mary (Minnie) Temple, with whom he shared a lengthy correspondence, though he never acted upon his feelings. She’s also supposedly the inspiration behind James’s most noteworthy heroines: Isabel Archer, Daisy Miller and Milly Theale. Interesting to note that upon Minnie’s death from consumption at age 24, he destroyed all of his correspondence to her, but preserved her last three letters to him. And in essence, the story of Emily Hudson stems from this theory.
Unfortunately, Melissa Jones’s take on this theory didn’t live up to my expectations. The best summary for this book I think comes from Emily’s own reflections, “] if William had indeed been right: she merely flitted from feeling to feeling, loyalty to loyalty, and had no anchor of any kind.” Emily’s progression throughout the book is truly a mess! The book spans her various experiences from age 19 to 23, through a mix of narration and an epistolary format. Initially, Emily appears youthful and impulsive. She’s very free and open in her comments and I could understand her cousin William’s initial interest in her. And I liked her budding relationship with Captain Lindsay.
What killed this book for me was the second section, which highlighted her antics in London. This section sullies the image that the reader’s formed of Emily—from youthful exuberant innocence to willful duplicity and melodrama. She knowingly engages in a relationship with Lord Firle, a known philanderer, despite having been previously warned of his wicked ways by several acquaintances. Yet, while she engages in this affair with Firle, which fills her “with an improbable overweening joy,” she still claims that she has feelings for the Captain. Yuck! I was waiting for her cousin William to pull her aside and tell her off, but as her actions got worse, he gradually pulled himself away, leaving her to her own devices. What a disappointment.
The third section, which describes Emily’s convalescence in Rome, (she suffers from consumption, an illness she exacerbated by spending an evening out in a storm, followed by a dip in the ocean) was slightly better. But it tries to write off Emily’s actions as merely being the impulsive actions of youth. I’m sorry, but too much had happened for her antics to be solely categorized under the label of “youth.”
Despite those problems in terms of the plot, the writing isn’t that bad, and I rather liked the pairing of narration and letter writing. It gave more substance to the characters. If I compare this book to other examples of historical fiction that I’ve read, I consider this book better than Victoria Holt’s [b:Mistress of Mellyn, but not as good as some of the Catherine Cookson novels that I love.