Misfortune: A Novel
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2005)
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
eading this novel, I kept thinking of an old (Yorkshire I think) saying that '
There's nought so queer as folk.
' You'll find as bizarre folk in
as you'll find anywhere. It's a Dickensian tale of greed and misery with a cross-dressing twist, all tied together in a librarian's unlikely quest for meaning in the life of a lost poetess, Mary Day. For added interest, the first letter of each chapter is represented by an intricate, black and white Victorian sketch.
he beginning is classic Dickens. A dirty, mentally confused boy named Pharaoh is sent to dispose of a newborn baby, as the police descend on a hovel, where the mother died in childbirth. Pharaoh leaves the bundle on a rubbish heap, where it intrigues a dog, the mongrel's attentions in turn arousing the interest of a gentleman in a passing carriage. So it comes about that the richest man in England, the effeminate Lord Geoffroy Loveall, takes in the child and raises it as his own. Geoffroy, who never recovered from the death of his beloved sister Dolores (who fell from a tree), marries Anonyma (his sister's ex-governess, and now the mansion's librarian) who fakes a pregnancy, and they pretend that the baby is their own.
here's only one small problem. Geoffroy is determined that the baby be a girl to replace Dolores, but nature doesn't cooperate. For varying reasons (which all make a kind of sense in the context of the novel), Anonyma and the Love Hall senior servants support both the hoax and Geoffroy's delusion about the child's sex, so that a little boy is brought up to believe that he's a girl, Rose. Rose's very close childhood friends are the estate manager's children, Stephen and Sarah Hamilton, and s(he) grows up equidistant between the two of them in personality and interests. Most of the story is told from Rose's point of view.
ow any good Dickensian tale needs its villains, and they litter the landscape here in a pushy, obnoxious crew of Osbern relatives and a blackmailing old retainer - all do unpleasant deeds but eventually get their comeuppance. Fortunately, Rose's idyllic, loving childhood is only marred by occasional Osbern visits, but his adolescence seriously challenges his father's persistent denial, causing a serious decline (the tale at this point takes on a morbidly humorous tone). Lord Loveall wastes away while the shocking truth hits Rose hard. S(he) feels like the personification of the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus. So, naturally when Rose flees Love Hall, s(he) ends up at the spring Selmacis (site of the legend, more or less) near Bodrum in Turkey.
hough that might have put an end to Rose's story, friends and family intervene to help uncover Rose's true identity, unearthing in the process many surprising truths about the history of that abandoned baby, all of which leads to a most satisfying conclusion.
is a literary historical, laced with humor, that examines the role of nature and nurture in gender - a unique novel that's ideal for group discussion.
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