Miss Bates struggled with this novella, alternating liking and disliking it. The prose is polished and smooth; the story, reminiscent of 19th century novels like Trollope’s, except it’s set in 1803 and contains hot love scenes. The fact that the hero of this novella is a vicar makes for interestingly liberal Christian ethics, but the romance is a failure. It pales next to other more interesting aspects. The characters, especially the hero, Walter Langston, the fallen woman, Artemisia Finch, the townspeople of Grange-Over-Sands, their dilemmas, their quarrels are more engaging than the romance, as if Barbosa wanted to write about those things instead of torrid love scenes and a cardboard villain.
The plot of this novella is straightforward. Walter Langston, third son of a viscount, ignominiously injured in the army, unwilling to live on the charity of his older brothers, takes the position of vicar in a small English town. Among his parishioners is the beautiful Artemisia Finch, fallen woman and town outcast. At 16, Artemisia slept with the local aristocratic bad boy, who got her pregnant, sullied her reputation by claiming that she’d slept with other men, and abandoned her. She lost her baby and left for London where she became a highly paid courtesan. Now, she’s returned to nurse her ill father. Walter takes one look at Artemisia and determines to make her his.
Walter is a very sympathetic character, one who matures and finds purpose as the novella progresses. He recognizes the injustice done to Artemisia and embarks on a campaign to win her, as well as reconcile her with the town. There is a lovely scene where he openly calls on her, setting the example of Christian charity for the townspeople. She is lonely, isolated, and suspicious. He offers friendship. How refreshing, how lovely, how original, thought Miss Bates … above all, our vicar hero is kind. When he turns into alpha-vicar and yanks her to him and kisses her … Miss Bates thought, “Badly done.”
In several excellent scenes, Walter ministers to the townspeople, comforting, reassuring, and counselling them. In the process of doing so, Walter realizes that a sense of purpose had been missing from his life. He found it in this last-resort position of town vicar. As he states at the end, “All his life, Walter wondered what was wrong with him. Why he could find … no pursuit that engaged him … But now he understood.” By going through the motions of being a vicar, already by temperament a kind and charitable person, Walter becomes the very thing he took on so lightly and cavalierly. His journey is believable and engaging. His journey is so believable and engaging that the romance plays second fiddle to it. In the end, the love scenes are not moving, or interesting, or as subversive as Barbosa hoped. The romance doesn’t interest us as much as the individual fates of our hero and heroine. Maybe the shorter form of the novella didn’t give the romance much room to develop convincingly. We are not invested in it, whereas we are invested in Walter’s journey to acceptance and maturity. This is a novella of many interesting ideas, but not much feeling.
Miss Bates is enamoured of the vicar, but not his hotness and says, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park
This honest review is the result of an e-novella provided by Circe Press via Netgalley.