Book Review: The Lady and the Highwayman, by Sarah M. Eden

Every now and then I write a review that can’t be published elsewhere because it doesn’t fit the site or because the book has been reviewed already or because the stars forbid it. Here’s one of those reviews!

The Lady and the Highwayman is three books in one. It involves a romance between two writers of penny dreadfuls, so we get the romance between the writers as well as peeks at each of their books. I found this story to be enjoyable but bland. 

The plot: Elizabeth Black is a writer of respectable literary fiction and the headmistress of a girl’s school. Both jobs depend on her maintaining an appearance of propriety. However, in secret she writes extremely popular penny dreadfuls, using the name Mr. King.

Fletcher Walker is not respectable at all, having grown up on the streets. He has financial success as a penny dreadful author and is a member of a club of other penny dreadful authors. This club is devoted to aiding the poor children of London through action as well as alms. They rescue children from abusive masters and find better placements for them, which is sometimes illegal (depending on the work status of the children) and always dangerous (due to furious masters). 

Fletcher is very annoyed when his popularity as an author is eclipsed by that of Mr. King and he is determined to discover Mr. King’s identity. This puts him in Elizabeth’s orbit although he does not suspect her. The two end up collaborating on saving some children while Elizabeth agrees to help Fletcher in his search so that she can throw him off her trail.

There’s a glaring, horrible problem with this book, and that is that Fletcher is the most obtuse man on the face of the planet. He does not suspect Elizabeth of being Mr. King even when he finds that, among many other clues, the following:

  1. Mr. King’s stories begin to echo conversations Fletcher has with Elizabeth (Fletcher assumes Elizabeth must know Mr. King and has reported the conversations to him).
  2. Fletcher finds a manuscript of a penny dreadful in Elizabeth’s drawer, in her handwriting (Fletcher assumes she helps him with dictation and transcription).

Lord Jesus, give me strength. This parade of obtuseness by Fletcher, and for matter by Elizabeth who might as well have “I’m Mr. King” tattooed on her face despite wanting to keep King’s identity a secret, makes an otherwise enjoyable book drop dead in its tracks. It’s a shame since the book is otherwise pleasant though not life-changing.

While Fletcher and Elizabeth are both oblivious when it comes to, respectively, detecting and hiding secrets, they are otherwise intelligent and I enjoyed seeing them work together. Both have a great sense of compassion and empathy for others and an enormous amount of mutual respect. They are both level-headed in an emergency and sweet with each other as their romance develops. The on-page physicality doesn’t go beyond kissing, and there’s not a great deal of steamy lust in the air, but it’s easy to picture them as an old married couple with a combination of birth children and adopted children and piles of manuscripts all over their house. The only conflict between them is that Elizabeth doesn’t trust him to know that she’s an author until the very end of the book, and he’s too dim to figure it out. 

Of course, the penny dreadful excerpts are the best parts of the book, and I wish we got more of them. Fletcher’s story, The Vampire’s Tower, is about a pair of street urchins who try to save a larger group of urchins from a menacing kidnapper. Mr. King is the author of The LAdy and the Highwayman, in which a woman must find courage to protect her ward and to discover the true motives of a dashing and polite highwayman. These stories aren’t nearly lurid enough to be true penny dreadfuls. Where’s the gore? Where’s the sex? However, the stories are suspenseful – much more so than the romance between Elizabeth and Fletcher.

The lack of conflict between Fletcher and Elizabeth, not to mention a fairly low-key level of sexual tension, makes for a book that is soothing but not gripping. The concept of love between penny dreadful authors is a fun one, but again the lack of rational deduction on Fletcher’s part and the tame nature of the penny dreadfuls themselves makes for bland reading. I’m fine without sex and gore on the page, but a little more tension, story expansion, and consistent character behavior would have elevated this tremendously.

Thanksgiving, by Kate Seymour Maclean

This beautiful poem was written by Kate Seymour Maclean, a Canadian poet who lived from 1829 – 1916.

 The Autumn hills are golden at the top,
        And rounded as a poet’s silver rhyme;
    The mellow days are ruby ripe, that drop
        One after one into the lap of time.

    Dead leaves are reddening in the woodland copse,
        And forest boughs a fading glory wear;
    No breath of wind stirs in their hazy tops,
        Silence and peace are brooding everywhere.

    The long day of the year is almost done,
        And nature in the sunset musing stands,
    Gray-robed, and violet-hooded like a nun,
        Looking abroad o’er yellow harvest lands:

    O’er tents of orchard boughs, and purple vines
        With scarlet flecked, flung like broad banners out
    Along the field paths where slow-pacing lines
        Of meek-eyed kine obey the herdboy’s shout;

    Where the tired ploughman his dun oxen turns,
        Unyoked, afield, mid dewy grass to stray,
    While over all the village church spire burns–
        A shaft of flame in the last beams of day.

    Empty and folded are her busy hands;
        Her corn and wine and oil are safely stored,
    As in the twilight of the year she stands,
        And with her gladness seems to thank the Lord.

    Thus let us rest awhile from toil and care,
        In the sweet sabbath of this autumn calm,
    And lift our hearts to heaven in grateful prayer,
        And sing with nature our thanksgiving psalm.

Between the Lines Book Club: Virginia Hall

This month in Between the Lines Book club, we are reading A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell. We will meet over zoom to discuss this book, at 10:30AM Saturday November 21, 2020. A zoom link will be shared closer to the date.

For information about more female spies in WWII, try these articles:

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/allied-world-war-2-female-spy-movies

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/female-spies-world-war-ii/588058/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52574750

And here are two videos about Virginia Hall. The first one includes and interview with her niece.

In this third video, Helen Taylor Thompson talks about her experiences with the SOE, a fascinating first-person account:

Fun News

I’m not blogging much in November or December because despite my best efforts Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my daughter’s finals aren’t cancelled. But here’s a link to an article I wrote for Clarkesworld Magazine! I love writing these English Major Nerd pieces. Well, actually, to quote Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” So here’s something I have written!

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/sessarego_11_20/

Between the Lines Book Club: A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

This month in Between the Lines Book club, we are reading A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell. We will meet over zoom to discuss this book, at 10:30AM Saturday November 21, 2020. A zoom link will be shared closer to the date.

A Woman of No Importance is a non-fiction biography of Virginia Hall, a spy who helped the French Resistance during WWII. Here are some discussion questions to consider:

1. A charismatic woman of great intelligence and resourcefulness, Virginia Hall is an inspiration from the very first page of A Woman of No Importance. She clearly had a similar magnetic pull in person, drawing people from all walks of life to stand for freedom, their country, and the Allied effort, often at great peril to their families and themselves. 

Did the book change your ideas about what one person can accomplish? In what ways did her grit and courage inspire you? 

2. Since birth, Virginia was expected to marry well and become a society wife; instead, she chose a male-dominated career path in which she constantly found herself either underestimated or overlooked, even after the end of her illustrious war career. Do you feel like views on where “a woman’s place” is have changed? In what ways do you feel society has progressed when it comes to gender equality—and in what ways has it not?

3. Did you (or anyone you know) have a course set for you since childhood that you were expected to follow? Have you (or they) since rebelled from that course? If so, what obstacles did you (or they) have to face, if any? Was it worth it?

4. At the young age of twenty-seven, Virginia lost a leg to gangrene after a devastating hunting accident. She somehow found the resilience to not only survive but thrive, both for herself and for her beloved France. She mentions that she had a spiritual experience on her sickbed, seeing a vision of her father that told her she must survive, she must go on.

How do you feel this experience shaped the rest of her life and her adventures? What drives you to keep going in the face of hardships, great and small? 

5. Sonia Purnell asks a pressing question: “One of my great interests is motivation—why did Virginia take insane gambles with her own life for the sake of another country?” 

Why do you think she did? Would you do the same in her place?

6. During the war, Virginia was often a rebellious figure, known not only for her courage but often for her disregard of directives, accurately believing herself capable of playing a larger role than she was given. Still, in her personal life, rather than cause a possible family upset, she hid her continuing relationship with Paul from her mother for many years. 

What did you think of her decision to do so? What does it tell us about the Virginia hidden behind all her many disguises and bravery?

7. Virginia was wise, discerning, and perceptive beyond belief—her life depended on deciding whom to trust and how much. Against all odds, it seems she always made the right choice—except for Alesch. Given the skepticism that others around her had about him, why do you think she trusted him as she did?

8. Virginia had to put on many personas during the war, from the journalist she played during her first foray into France to the elderly peasant woman she pretended to be when she returned. She played all her roles with finesse and, apparently, very convincingly. 

Do you think her ability to commit to character was innate or a carefully acquired skill? What do you think are the key characteristics of a spy?

9. Virginia and her compatriots all across France faced heavy losses during the war. Some were tortured to the point of death, others faced the firing squad, and still others suffered from injuries incurred in battle for the rest of their lives—including Virginia herself. 

Were these sacrifices worth it? What did Virginia’s life teach you about the importance of fighting for your beliefs? And against tyranny? Do you have a cause that you would be willing to die for? 

10. Virginia Hall was a very private person, whether because she had noted what happened when her fellow spies had loose lips or because of her nature. If you could meet Virginia, what is the foremost question you’d want to ask her?

11. Talk about the good-old-boy office politics underlying some of the decisions to place under trained personnel in the field, and some of the fatalities those decisions led to.

12. What about Hall’s post-war life in which she had to fight another type of tyranny: sexism? Discuss the offer of a low-level clerkship at the CIA despite Hall’s brilliant performance in the field. Or recall the man who referred to Hall as a “gung-ho lady left over from OSS days overseas.” Talk about the other women who made untold (literally) sacrifices for the Allied forces during the war. For examples:

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/allied-world-war-2-female-spy-movies