A historical novel about a woman who is pressed into marrying a wealthy but potentially dangerous man, then finds herself trapped in Naples during the early Napoleonic wars. 1973.
All right, I’ve decided to recommend this book, but along with that recommendation I want to issue a few warnings.
First: when you read summaries of this book, be they on the dust jacket flap or on your favorite bookish site, understand that the summary has very little to do with this book. I have no idea why this is. But I can promise you that there is a sizable difference between the published plot summaries and the book itself. It was disconcerting enough that, as I read through my library copy, I found myself repeatedly flipping back to the dust jacket flap, re-reading that summary with some confusion. It sounded like the book I was reading, and yet it wasn’t.
I suspect this discrepancy stems from all the historical figures the author tries to incorporate into the story. It starts when the main character, Helen Telfair, is young, and she stumbles across a high-class party in the woods. She sees a woman dancing for the group of men, and in her impressionable naiveté decides this woman must be an angel. Turns out the strange woman is very far from an angel—-she’s Emma Hart, a woman with a loose reputation and a countenance men (particularly the famous Romney) like to paint.
Helen grows up, having never seen her “angel” again but still remembering her. Helen’s mother is ill, her father a disgruntled naval captain who can’t seem to get a ship, so he takes it out on his wife and daughter. Helen becomes a self-proclaimed “bluestocking,” making a pact of sorts with a friend that they will never marry. Instead, they will live together in a cottage, sustained by the inheritance that Helen suspects she will receive from an aunt.
Things go awry when her mother’s health demands a warmer climate and war breaks out with France, where the revolution is picking up steam. Helen’s father finally gets that ship of his, and it is decided that Helena and her mother will also sail with him to the Mediterranean.
On board the ship is a very wealthy but very dumb Englishman, Lord Merritt. He’s so dumb, in fact, he can’t actually speak in complete sentences—-he just does the upper-class Regency equivalent of manly grunting. (Incidentally, I loved this character quirk of his, though we’re not really supposed to like anything about him.) Somewhere out at sea, the ship takes part in a naval battle, and during the attack Helen is left unchaperoned below decks with a man.
…Which leads me to my second warning. In many ways, this novel reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s numerous Regency novels. The main differences are that Heyer’s writing is more polished (although Hodge’s is not bad), and the things that are only hinted at, or threaten to happen in Heyer’s books, actually do happen in Shadow of a Lady. In this case, it means that an unchaperoned woman left in the dark with a strange man not only has her reputation compromised, but is actually raped. It’s not graphic, or even much of a scene at all, but nonetheless it does happen.
Helen does everything she can to cover up the incident. All the same, this one encounter has left her with child (isn’t that always how it turns out in fiction and middle school sex-ed classes?). She suspects that if she gives birth to a bastard, she will no longer be eligible for the inheritance from that aunt. Instead, she resigns herself to marriage, and Lord Merritt happens to be at hand. He proposes once more, and this time she accepts him. He has his own unsentimental reasons for desiring marriage: he has an uncle who won’t leave him a fortune unless he’s married. It’s hinted at but never explicitly stated that Lord Merritt *ahem* prefers the company of his own sex, and presumably the uncle heard a rumor to this effect; thus, Merritt must marry.
At first the marriage seems like it will work out. Helen thinks she can manage Merritt easily enough, and at least he knows about her pregnancy and is prepared to call the child his. They set up house in Naples, where there’s a sizable British expat community, led by the ambassador Sir William Hamilton and his wife, Emma Hamilton, aka Emma Hart, aka Helen’s “angel.”
This is where we start encountering real historical figures, such as the King and Queen of Naples, the Hamiltons, and Captain Horatio Nelson. These figures play into the story to some degree, but they’re never really involved in the drama of Helen’s rapidly deteriorating situation. (Hint: her husband has his inheritance now, plus hers, so what’s the point of keeping her and her bastard son alive?) For instance, I think Emma Hamilton and Helen are supposed to be friends, but since they never share their problems with each other, I was never totally convinced of this relationship.
I think the book would have been much stronger if there had been less gossip about naval battles, less historical name dropping, and less time spent on historical figures who have nothing to do with advancing the Helen-vs-Merritt plot. As it stands, I have the distinct impression that the author really wanted to make the book about the historical facts. It was like the fictional characters were just repeat-offense historical photobombers.
Still, I was interested enough in the fiction to trudge along through the historical parts. Helen is a good character, though a little undecided on whether she is strong or in constant need of saving. I also appreciated the relative lack of innuendo, as that’s something in Austen and Heyer that’s never much appealed to me. In Shadow of a Lady, it felt like things actually happened, even if they weren’t always the things you wanted to have happen. So if you’re open to your Regency experience being a little less G-rated and a little more PG, I think this book will prove satisfying.
Shadow of a Lady has left me with a favorable enough impression of Jane Aiken Hodge’s storytelling powers that I think I’ll try another of her books. I’m open to suggestions!