Set in 1860s England, this literary novel is very much in the style of well-known Victorian fiction, but it is more than just a ponderous rehash of the typical works of the time. The story centres on the mental disturbances of a beautiful widow, Mrs. Isabel Ireland, who is incarcerated in Easton Hall in Norfolk, the substantial but run-down property of her husband’s friend, the naturalist James Dixey. There is a mystery surrounding Dixey’s unwillingness to divulge details of Isabel’s health and treatment to her family and other interested parties, the background to which involves a criminal fraternity, who also embark upon a 19th-century equivalent of the Great Train Robbery.
As with all good mysteries, though, the story only begins to be fully explained towards the end of the book. A variety of characters narrate the plot through a range of styles: correspondence, journals, the omniscient Trollopian narrator and the more modern disjointed thoughts of Isabel. This mélange works well because the plot is stitched together ably, and the story is pursued by characters (and often their names) already familiar to the reader from the Victorian canon. The historical context is sound, with many references to the customs and practices of the day, as well as detailed footnotes at the end of the novel to explain the references made to historical events and personages, often with post-modern tongue firmly in cheek, I feel. The two concerns I have with the novel are that despite the erudition, convincing historical background and excellence of style, the characters somehow do not really sufficiently engage the emotions of the reader, and there is the occasional “continuity” problem, which should have been spotted by good editing.