Wednesday 29 November 2023

The Winter Garden, Alexandra Bell

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When Beatrice's mother dies when she’s still a child a mysterious winter garden reveals itself to her. The magic of the place provides some comfort to her in her darkest days, masking the regret she will live with for not having said goodbye. Her only evidence of her time there are some black apple trees whose seeds she managed to take with her. As the years pass she wonders if she will ever see the garden again. On the day of her wedding to a man she does not love she makes a decision to reject the expectations of nineteenth century high society and go in search of the place that makes her heart sing. Her best friend Rosa respects her for her strength and rejection of expectations, while herself being completely obsessed with gaining a title and living the life of titled British aristocracy. Her decisions lead her down a more traditional route which sadly proves to fall far short of everything she ever dreamed of. Life is hard and cold, and consumed with grief and an increasing hatred of her husband. She wonders why the winter garden doesn’t come to her, why her suffering is not enough. Both women are invited to take part in a competition to create the most magical pleasure garden, the winner to be in receipt of one wish. This brings out a rivalry that threatens to pull their friendship apart for good, both so intent on winning that wish and reversing the moment they believe put their lives on the wrong path. But who will be victorious, and will the sacrifice be worth it?

There’s so much to unpack in this novel. It deals with difficult subjects such as grief, domestic abuse, and mental health struggles. We see from early on the limitations on women in society. Their intelligence and creativity is seen as something to hide as it makes them less desirable to potential husbands. They are not to express opinions in polite company and must pretend that running a home is the greatest ambition they hold. Later in the novel we see how much darker this becomes with the threat of being sent to an asylum hanging over Rosa when she doesn’t behave in a way her husband and mother-in-law deem appropriate. It is clear that women have few options in life, being considered possessions of their husbands. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Beatrice rejects this, travelling alone in search of the winter garden, causing scandal in so doing. When you reject the ways of society, their opinions no longer matter however. When she struggles with her mental health she is advised by her doctor that it is caused by being a spinster, an unnatural condition. The book may be set almost two hundred years in the past but the unequal treatment of women in the medical world is recognisable still. 

The book is set up to suggest that it is Beatrice who will take centre stage, but actually it is Rosa who feels like the main character. She is not always likeable, feeling quite shallow to begin with, and self-centred at several times throughout. She is not a good friend to Beatrice, allowing their friendship to fall to the wayside while she plans her wedding and not taking the time to consider what challenges others are facing. However, when she faces a series of painful events you do feel for her, and when she is able to stand up to her husband you are delighted in her power. Whether she takes it a step too far is questionable, her actions causing her husband to be on the brink of a mental breakdown. Ultimately, you hope she is able to escape an unenviable position, and that her and Beatrice are able to come back together and offer the support and understanding that they both need.

Rosa’s life has a suffocating feel to it. Stuck in a huge, cold mansion with a husband she hates and a staff that find her odd for wanting to look after her children herself. Her mother-in-law is interfering and was never fully approved of her son marrying an American. She is lonely and under constant judgment. Her husband’s disinterest in her at least allows her the freedom to work on her creations and to plot against him without his noticing. She takes pleasure in her acts of defiance, and any chance she has to be away from the house and its inhabitants. Beatrice, on the other hand, creates a world for herself that is solitary. She is not surrounded by those who feel hostile toward her, but neither is she involved with those who care about her. Both women enjoy the company of a childhood friend, James Sheppard, now an orchid hunter, he used to work the gardens, and they frequently slip into treating him as inferior. Despite the fact they defy convention in many ways, they are still embedded in a class system. 

The winter garden is tantalisingly elusive. We see only glimmers of it through Beatrice’s recollections and the magical remnants of it they possess. The pleasure gardens they create are beautifully described, you feel as if you have stepped into a magical world. The descriptions of exotic and unusual plants make you long to grow your own cornucopia of wonders. Despite the difficult themes that permeate this novel, it retains a light, magical feel. The winter garden itself, however, begins to feel sinister as the two women strive to win the competition. The promise of a wish that seems all too easy to plunge the winner into a worse life than the one they are living feels a dangerous prize. Will they succumb to temptation, or allow the challenge to show them the good that they already have?

This is an enchanting read. The characters are complex and human, not entirely good, nor entirely bad (although there’s certainly those you relish in seeing their comeuppance). It is not joy from start to finish, the characters suffer terribly, giving them the motivation they need to put everything in to the competition. The magic of the novel is woven around it all however, and you do feel yourself transported to a world where the extraordinary is possible. A perfect read for the darker months.

Friday 24 November 2023

The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins

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Frannie Langton is born into slavery on a plantation ironically named Paradise. There she witnesses extreme cruelty. She learns to read, and as a result is forced to help Langton with his experiments, the horrors of which haunt her throughout. The plantation burns down and she is taken to London where legally she is free but Langton nonetheless gifts her to his rival Mr Benham. We know from the start that she is on trial for the murder of Mr and Mrs Benham and this colours the way we watch their relationship develop. She sees how unhappy Mrs Benham is in her marriage and as they grow closer a physical attraction develops. She is judged by the other servants in the household, and the two of them descend into opium addiction, yet it is a cruel turn of fate orchestrated by Mr Benham that seems likely to push them both over the edge. 

The circumstances of the murder are hazy. Frannie doesn’t remember what happened, and the witnesses pointing fingers are basing their assumptions on circumstantial evidence and prejudice. Frannie’s confessions are her opportunity to give voice to her life. She resents the people who take on the role of white saviours, revelling in hearing tales of suffering, making money from the misery of others. She wants her life to be understood fully, not to be mere entertainment, a way for people to feel better about themselves. Her writing is passionate and engrossing. Her life has undoubtedly been difficult, the people around her treating her terribly, but she is so much more than what has been done to her. 

She is not used to receiving affection. Growing up not knowing who her mother is, after the loss of another slave in the house at Paradise, Langton becomes her closest acquaintance. His experiments aim to prove that people of colour are not human as a way of justifying slavery and ill-treatment. He sees that Frannie is intelligent and in private speaks to her with some degree of respect, but as soon as he is in the company of white men she is treated as invisible. The fact he gifts her to Benham shows that he never really saw her as anything more than a possession he could use to his own advantage. She is left with a feeling of confusion, of temporary sorrow at his exit from her life. The lingering emotion however is guilt, shame at what they did together, an inability to absolve herself of responsibility for the actions she was forced to perform. There is a sense that she is willing to take the blame for a murder she may not have committed as punishment for the evil deeds she’d witnessed and been forced to participate in.

The women in the houses where she lives are unhappy and bored, a very dangerous circumstance for those who serve them. They have no love for their husbands and take steps to try to avoid pregnancy, taking what little control they can. Mrs Benham is forced to perform her role as a good wife and hostess even when she is suffering, and Mr Benham’s attempts to save face descend into cruelty. Frannie sees this and feels for the woman she has come to care for deeply. Their relationship is a difficult one, and far from being equal. When Frannie finds herself alone she realises how little opportunity there is for women of colour to even buy themselves a drink, let alone find work that doesn’t involve satisfying the sexual whims of wealthy men.

Her life is hard and full of suffering, disappointment, and rejection, yet she is defiant. She knows that she is capable and intelligent and will do what she must to survive. Her confessions are powerful. Langton and Benham are fictional characters but their actions reflect experiments that were carried out around this period. A haunting, disturbing book. Well written and with characters that feel real, this is an impressive debut.