A groggy, caffeine-heavy morning for me after a night reading into the wee hours, thanks to Lauren Willig’s Gothic romance, historical mystery The English Wife. The novel opens in January 1899 in Cold Spring NY, at “Illyria,” Bay and Annabelle Van Duyvil’s country estate. Bay and Annabelle’s hermetic existence has thus far been the bane of Bay’s appearances-are-all mother, Alva. Formidable, humorless Alva is ever flanked by Janie, her mousy, silent daughter and Anne, the mouthy, flamboyant niece she took in. To Alva’s great society-loving heart, Bay and Annabelle are finally celebrating the opening of their magnificent estate by holding a costume ball for New York’s best, brightest, and finest. Until now, Bay and Annabelle’s life has been a mystery. Rumours of eccentricities and infidelities swirl around them, about them … maybe because they keep to themselves and, at least on the surface, appear to live an idyllic existence with twins Sebastian and Viola. Bay and Annabelle don’t seem to give a fig about what the “best people” think, rendering them endlessly fascinating to the society pages and ensuring Alva Van Duyvil’s frustrated, officious meddling.
The novel is narrated, at least initially, by plain-Jane, under-her-mother’s-thumb Janie. Bay and Annabelle are “seen” from a glamorous distance. In the opening scene, Anne summons Janie from her wallflower stance at the ball to search for Bay and Annabelle. They are to open the dancing. In an atmospheric scene of cold, snow, and dark, Janie and Anne run through the garden calling for Bay and Annabelle. They discover Bay on the ground, in his Hades costume, with a jewelled dagger in his chest. Janie falls to her knees to hear him utter one word, “George,” before he dies. When Janie glances towards the slow-moving Hudson, she sees her sister-in-law’s body float by.
Thus begins Willig’s double narrative: the unfolding of Janie’s search for the truth behind her brother and sister-in-law’s deaths and the flashbacks to Bay and Annabelle’s meeting, wooing, and married life all the way to their final, fatal scene. Willig deftly reveals, like a deadly flower opening its petals, the deceptions, betrayals, and obsessions, but also the love, obligation, and friendship, that bring Bay and Annabelle to this point. At the same time, like a humble and pretty pansy showing its face to the spring, Willig also brings plain-Janie into her own and gifts her a gloriously romantic HEA. While I was mesmerized by Bay and Annabelle’s story, especially when Willig takes us to their meeting and courtship in London and Paris, as well as their married life in the US, I adored seeing Janie find answers, emerge from the shadows of her mother’s tyranny, and match wits with her partner-in-sleuthing-and-swain, the Irish journalist James Burke.
Willig has always been thematically interested in asking questions about how well we can know other people, how identity is formed by secrets, how secrets mark and cripple and render us unknowable to those we love. This is Bay and Annabelle’s tragedy. On the other hand, Janie’s meek, mild, circumspect existence, her devotion to her charity (her sole defiance of her mother) her life “on the fringe,” more observing than observed, her introversion and bookish ways, allow her to accurately read the narratives around her, find answers, understand motive and, ultimately, free herself from the strictures preventing her from her fully realized self to enjoy happiness, connection, and self-actualization. But that’s not where Janie starts. She starts, like the Second Mrs. De Winter, from a place of humility and plainness: “If there was one skill Janie had learned over the years, it was the art of absenting herself” and “She was only bold and brave within the covers of her books.” She does, however, start from a place that says “I care,” that seeks justice and protects the innocent, in the form of her niece and nephew. Janie’s values will lead her to unveil her family’s dark mystery, but Janie begins by posing the question “how well can we know someone?”: ” … what did she know of Annabelle? For all that Annabelle was her brother’s wife, they had never proceeded beyond a polite reserve. It wasn’t that Annabelle was unkind; just distant, like the image of the moon reflected on water.”
Willig’s novel is really the stories of these two women, the spinster and the “English wife”, one who ends in tragedy and loss and the other who ends in life and love. Their journeys say a lot about living one’s life with integrity and there are, thankfully, glimmers of this for Annabelle before the final tragedy. The central conceit of Annabelle and Bay’s life, however, proved to be trite (I also forgive Willig the red herring). What wasn’t trite was how much I cared about the characters and how much I wanted them to find justice on the one hand and love on the other. And what I’ve always loved about Willig is how she actually lays out her whole narrative, open for the reader to figure out, not through foreshadowing and cheap hint-dropping, but via allusion. Because Willig is a reader herself and has obviously loved the books that make up the literary tradition with which she identifies … Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the romance novel, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
The English Wife is not derivative. Willig brings her own contemporary stamp, her own ethos, and her elegant, allusive prose. I leave you with one delightful example, from Janie and James’s HEA (cue, maybe, the sleuthing couples of ’30s film?) ” ‘You, Miss Van Duyvil, have the face of a lady and the soul of a bandit,’ said Mr. Burke” and Janie’s aspiration, to live with panache,“She had tried appropriate, and it had given her headaches. Maybe it was time to be gloriously, fearlessly inappropriate. Within reason.” I loved that final proviso. Janie is in the great spinster tradition of meticulous examination, introverted consideration, and cautious adventure-embracing. 😉
I’d love to see more of Janie and James, but I suspect that Willig does her serial writing only for the Pink Carnation (following, lovingly, Willig’s great love for The Scarlet Pimpernel and Scaramouche). Let it be said then, I’m grateful for the sleepless night. In Lauren Willig’s The English Wife, Miss Austen and I found “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Lauren Willig’s The English Wife is published by St. Martin’s Press. It was released on January 9th and may be procured, either in “e” or dead-tree, from your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from St. Martin’s Press, via Netgalley.