Bethia loves the theatre. As wardrobe mistress for London’s Royal Court Theatre, she enjoys seeing “the playwright’s lines delivered with such naturalness as if the actor’s mind were composing them.” Bethia doesn’t love her cousin-by-marriage, whose relentless pursuit is becoming a nuisance. She agreed to have tea with him because in 1897 “some of the more unreasonable chains of propriety that had bound their mothers were loosening.” But Douglas got the wrong idea. When Bethia returns to Girton College, he causes a scene which embarrasses the staid young woman.
The author writes with confidence and a fine precision in realistic detail that captures the time period. She goes deeper into history, as when she details the founding of Harrod’s. In one chapter she sketches the life of Muriel, sister of Douglas, who is a young widow, rich and selfish, and keeps her little daughter in the wings being cared for by servants. Muriel, the villain, is more interesting than the heroine. She’s exciting and unpredictable, while Bethia seems self-righteous.
Blackwell is a good storyteller, but some of her summarizing is dashed-off. “Sports … were his passion, and over his relatively short life span he had broken both arms, his right foot, and a finger.” As the author makes more of a point that John is accident-prone, she risks unintentional humor.
A third of the way through the book, Blackwell introduces a new set of characters. The shift is jarring because we were expecting a juicy conflict between Bethia and Muriel, and instead we’re taken 200 miles north. Noah and Jude soon win us over, but we wonder how they fit with the others. As actors they gravitate to the theatre world of London, and provide the needed impetus for the plot.