What happens to your identity when everything you’ve known about your family is a lie? This is Lauren Willig’s premise for The Other Daughter. It opens as a cross between Mary Stewart and Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Heroine Rachel Woodley’s life has the air of impoverished 19th century governess as she cares for the Comte de Brillac’s three daughters in the French countryside. An urgent telegram summons her to England. Rachel, however, is too late: her mother is dead of influenza, the funeral wreaths bought, adorned, and withered. At 25, Rachel is bereft of mother and father and destitute; her only hope, a secretarial course and immediate employment. Troubles come in battalias when their landlord in the obscure village of Netherwell evicts her. As Rachel packs her mother’s things, she makes a remarkable discovery – a Tattler photograph of Lady Olivia Standish and her father, the Earl of Ardmore, the man Rachel knew as Edward Woodley, the father she thought dead when she was four. Is the title’s “other daughter” Olivia, wealthy, polished, privileged, or Rachel, Ardmore’s by-blow? To lose job, mother, home … and discover you’re the illegitimate daughter of a man you’d adored and thought dead, alive, well, and callously indifferent to the wife and daughter he deceived and abandoned, what does it do to a girl? Can an author, other than Brontë, deprive her heroine of everything stable and loving and throw her into a surreal sense of dislocated self: Willig certainly has.
Rachel is desperate to uncover the truth of things. She travels to Oxford, to the man she knows as Cousin David, surrogate father. Though Cousin David is regretful, he can’t do more than confirm Rachel’s claim of Lord Ardmore as the father she thought dead. Cousin David is evasive in the face of Rachel’s probing. Disappointed, chagrined, and heart-broken, Rachel leaves Cousin David’s rooms to run into the mysterious Simon Montfort. Simon takes her out for a cup of tea and they concoct a wild and unlikely scheme. Simon, the Daily Yell‘s gossip columnist and man-about-town, so blue-blooded one character quips he bleeds blue when he cuts himself shaving, moves in the circles Rachel needs to enter to approach her father and newly discovered sister. Simon offers to pass Rachel off as his nomadic cousin, Miss Vera Merton and offers her the wardrobe and address (his mother’s) that would help her enter the world of the idle, wealthy, and aristocratic. In exchange, his paper will have a close encounter with one of the great scandals of the decade. Just like that, the reader is transported from genteel poverty in our Jane-Eyre-esque heroine to the world of Evelyn Waugh and the “bright young things.”
Willig’s narrative is whip-lashy in its sudden and abrupt movement from Rachel’s gothic romance French setting to drinking, partying, dancing London. At the centre of this is the enigmatic Simon Montfort: beautiful, elegant, jaded, and something dark, dangerous, and tragic in his black, soulful eyes’ depths. He and Rachel’s intelligence and determination to find the truth of her life, confront betrayal and reclaim a grounded sense of self, kept Miss Bates’ interest and sympathy. Miss Bates was grateful Willig committed to and executed a third person narration. If there’s one thing Miss Bates abhors, except in masters like Charlotte Brontë or Mary Stewart, it’s the self-conscious falsely-tormented voice of romance’s first-person narrator. Ugh. Please make it go away, romance muses.
While Miss Bates suggests Willig’s The Other Daughter may be identified as romance, she’s stretching the truth. There’s hardly any romance to Willig’s novel; yet, the give-and-take of Simon and Rachel’s dialogue, their embroiling in the fast set and with the dysfunctional Ardmore family, offers tantalizing possibilities of love and sex. The novel, however, is devoid of touch and physical attraction: certainly, Rachel notes Simon’s beauty and, occasionally, Simon gives Rachel’s shoulders a warm and sympathetic squeeze, but that is hardly the stuff of grand passion. When the romance arrives like an unexpected guest on your doorstep, it’s contrived and tacked on … but, but, says Miss B., Rachel and Simon are so likable and intriguing apart that the reader can’t help but root for their HEA.
If Wilig’s The Other Daughter isn’t much of a rom, what is it? It’s a novel of identity, Rachel’s identity and masterfully executed. There are scenes of great pain and disappointment, but of deep self-understanding. And there is always Simon, hinting at murky pools of character and destiny Rachel oughtn’t enter, but always letting her carry on her voyage of discovery, map her own route and navigate this alien world. But Simon never leaves Rachel rudderless.
Willig’s The Other Daughter beguiles with great turns of phrase. When Rachel embarks on confronting her father and sister, does she seek revenge? Does she want the Earl of Ardmore and Olivia to hurt as she does? She’s not sure, but she is, as Willig deftly phrases, “full up with wormwood and gall.” All that bitterness and anger; those old-fashioned words, echoing Shakespeare. When Simon plays Henry Higgins to Rachel’s Eliza Doolittle, he says, “Chop off your locks and your inhibitions” and “You must learn to stifle these virtuous bourgeois impulses” to her reluctance to accept his sister’s handmedown frocks. Miss Bates is a sucker for wit and Rachel and Simon’s matching-of-wits is delightful.
Like Stewart and her recent incarnation, Simone St. James, Willig is a good hand at creating the oblique hero. Certainly Simon’s lurking inner darkness helps set him up as such:
There was something terribly lulling about Mr. Montfort’s calculated rudeness, about the mockery he made of the normal rules of behaviour. Like a court jester, constantly mumming. But she’d be a fool, Rachel thought soberly, to let herself be taken in by that. Beneath the banter lay something else entirely, something dark and dangerous and disconcertingly serious.
Simon’s mask is not one he’s likely to remove, not even for Rachel, brave, honest, and suddenly part of a subterfuge that leaves her without a sense of who she is. What Simon Montfort is, however, is built on the dark gothic hero, jaded rake, and knight-in-shining-armor, a powerful, compelling combination. Simon’s persona as amoral, careless, bored slips and reveals his true self to Rachel: “For a moment, Rachel thought she saw something on his face, something raw and honest. But then he shrugged, saying glibly … ” Glibness is Simon Montfort’s modus operandi. But his sarcasm also reveals characters in their pomposity and hypocrisy (a vile combination). The self-important politician, Mr. Trevannion, Olivia’s earnest, but secretly exploitative, fiancé, says pontifically to Rachel:
Mr. Trevennian pointedly turned his back on Simon. He turned to Rachel, his eyes bright with enthusiasm. “”For centuries, we have grappled with the baser parts of our natures.”
“Maybe you do,” murmured Simon. “I like to cosset mine and take it out for tea.”
Rachel had to disguise her laugh as a cough, hiding her smile behind her hand.
Who can resist Simon’s wit and exposing of Mr. Trevennian, whose moral righteousness hides his political expediency, when it is couched in such brilliant diction, “cosset”!!, and Wildean stripping of social pretensions? Miss Bates didn’t even try. In the end, Simon’s distancing sarcasm reveals a deeply wounded soul, one who thinks his vulnerabilities may hinder the marvelous Rachel. His pain is mundane and all too familiar, but the reader, like Rachel, can’t love him less for his final ordinariness.
And Rachel is no less loveable (though Miss Bates wishes she’d seen a bit o’ lovin’ between Simon and Rachel) and admirable in her stance regarding her father and sister. While Simon’s sarcasm points to moral honesty, Rachel’s scheme isn’t enacted for revenge, but justice and truth. She may be deceiving many people, but she seeks justice for herself and her mother. When her disguise hurts an innocent, her cousin Cece, she owns it. When she witnesses Lady Ardmore bullying Olivia, her jealousy and resentment dissolve and empathy and pity rise up. When her sense of self, moral, bourgeois, and upholding of the old-fashioned verities of truth, hard work, and chaste sobriety in her dealings with others, is compromised by her Miss Vera Merton disguise, she self-questions. What does she want from this farce she and Simon devised? “She didn’t want revenge, not really. What she wanted was … Well, she wasn’t entirely sure. She wanted to know what happened all those years ago. Why her father had left them. If he had ever thought of them, missed them.” Rachel wants to know the truth: she doesn’t want revenge, money, or even love from her father. She wants to be seen, acknowledged, recognized. When reconciliation and understanding come, the past is melodramatically explained away. Miss Bates can’t really say she embraced Willig’s effort, her premise was outlandish; her plot, convoluted and, in the end, rushed and melodramatic; her romance, minimal. But her Rachel and Simon, in their authenticity and honesty, were wonderful. Echoing Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Willig’s The Other Daughter “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Lauren Willig’s The Other Daughter, published by St. Martin’s Press, was released on July 21st. It’s available, in your preferred format, at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to St. Martin’s Press for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.