Friday, December 30, 2011

The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen

Like The Silent Governess and The Girl in the Gatehouse, I found little believability in the plot of The Maid of Fairbourne Hall: so quickly is it doled out and with so many happenstances and ironic circumstances. I was quite impressed with Klassen's The Apothecary's Daughter and The Lady of Milkweed Manor as she ushered out information little known of the Regency period, esoteric as it was in her weaving of it into the Austen-esque storylines.

While the setting and historical canvas of Klassen's work involves similarities to Austen, her modern writing and dialogue fail to emulate the great writer she is so trying to mirror. Nonetheless, I found this to be the strongest work of her past three and I read it in nearly one sitting so cozy was the story and so light and airy as to meet my requirements for perfect holiday reading.

Margaret Macy stands to inherit a large fortune come her twenty-fifth birthday.  Her lecherous step-father and his ill-reputed nephew plot that they should place her in a compromising position; thus securing her need to marry into the family so they can whittle at her fortune as they may.  Comparing her plight to that of the Biblical Joseph and Potiphar's wife, Margaret flees with her lady's maid and finds herself employed in Maidstone, Kent at Fairbourne Hall.  Ironically, this is the country estate belonging to the brothers Upchurch: both previous suitors when Margaret was a belle of the ton. Nathaniel Upchurch had even proposed marriage;but the young and impressionable Margaret failed to realize the potential of the grown man who had developed so positively while under the employ of his father in Barbados. The other Upchurch brother, Lewis, is a dashing rake whose flirtations with various "chits" is as upending as his disregard for his family's hard-earned fortune.

Nathaniel has returned to oversee that the investments and income made by the family are done so in an appropriate and prudent manor: especially as he has begun disdaining his father's continued use of slaves in the Colonial world.  Nathaniel's sister, Helen, is also in residence at Fairbourne, mourning the loss of her fiance to the sea and relegated to a life of spinsterhood. Margaret, now an undermaid called Nora Garrret, is able to witness first hand the glimpses of family life afforded those below stairs.  As she struggles to keep her identity hidden and to waylay her growing attraction to Nathaniel, the man she had scorned earlier, she learns valuable lessons about the true virtue of character, of hard work and of the selflessness reliance on and working for others affords.

This was a big year for upstairs/downstairs stories: the wildly popular ITV production of Downton Abbey and the revamp of Upstairs Downstairs delighted the hearts of many period-loving viewers. Klassen has done well at recreating this world in the Regency period. Her historical knowledge is not limited and she does well at providing a realistic glimpse into servant life. Indeed, this is when her writing is strongest: as Margaret/Nora learns about the hard work involved in the running of the household and the hierarchy and politics at play in the downstairs world.  As mentioned, it is not her historical knowledge that falters; rather her writing style, her penchant for superfluous chapter endings and portentous foreshadowing detracts from the Austen-like feel of her world. Moreover, she fails to create believable dialect for an Irish maid and for Margaret/Nora's assumed accent (more blatant having read plausible dialect of the same sort in The Colonel's Lady early this week).

Having recently finished two outstanding Christian novels (Wonderland Creek and The Colonel's Lady) and applauding the spark of originality in each: the individual author's propensity to leak their passion and personality into well-written prose, I was slightly deflated upon finishing this story. It is a competent story and certainly readable enough to keep you turning; but, like Klassen's recent work, lacks a definitive spark.

I kept thinking while ploughing through, that while I would gladly revisit the two aforementioned novels, this will be donated to a church library in the near future. I think Klassen does have a passion for the period: it is evident in her painstaking research; unfortunately, she is still unable to capture the easy wonder of her debut novel.  She is remarkably gifted and with careful honing and some more good editing from our friends at Bethany House, she may just bring something as exceptional as my two previous reads in the future.

Sidenote: this book has one of the worst Bethany covers I have seen in an age.

You can buy the book at amazon
Visit Julie Klassen's website

1 comment:

Canada said...

Margaret Macy flees her family's home in London when she is forced to avoid the unwanted advances of a suitor her stepfather is forcing on her. Suddenly penniless and with nowhere to go, she finds herself a maid in the home of a man she refused to marry two years earlier. As she stumbles through being a maid, she is force to look in the mirror and see how horribly she treated the staff. Not only has her situation changed, she finds herself changing.