A Factory of Cunning

Written by Philippa Stockley
Review by Suzanne J. Sprague

By age thirty, French noblewoman Mrs. Fox has been scandalized and chased to Holland with her loyal maid, Victoire. There Mrs. Fox establishes herself as an eccentric fixture of a successful brothel. Her landlord Hubert Van Essel, hiding his own secrets, honors her desire for discretion. In 1784, Mrs. Fox is forced to run again, this time to London, where she finds herself the anonymous owner of another stew. Mrs. Fox’s slyness is equal parts luck and preparation. Upon meeting some American men and corresponding with Van Essel and his contacts, Mrs. Fox hatches a multifaceted scheme that will obtain her the security she needs, the comfort she expects, and the entertainment that she craves. However, some amusement at the expense of a local parson’s daughter and attempted revenge on behalf of Van Essel lead to unexpected results, which she may not be able to spin in her favor.

The tale unfolds through journal entries and correspondence between Mrs. Fox and the individuals she confides in and manipulates. Stockley adeptly develops the characters with this convention through their easily identifiable writing styles. The novel is liberally sprinkled with witty wordplay, literary allusions, and appropriate cultural references. An included glossary helps define some of the more obscure expressions.

Despite the brothel backdrop and a scheme that involves the parson’s daughter and a trapeze, the novel contains no lurid sexual scenes and contains more humor than sexuality. Some may be offended at the hint of incest, but most will delight in this clever comedy of manners.