The Hidden Heart of Emily Hudson
As a devoted reader of Henry James, I was drawn to this book by the Jamesian feel of even the barest synopsis. And indeed, the story of orphaned, aspiring painter Emily Hudson, seeking freedom, art, and love in Boston, London, and Rome, is admittedly inspired by James’s cousin Minny Temple, who, in turn, inspired several Jamesian heroines.
The premise was intriguing, but, to me, the execution fell rather short. Emily’s story, delivered in brief scenes interspersed with letters, failed to come alive. I found it hard to warm to the heroine, whose repeatedly affirmed “uniqueness” seems to consist of a combination of feeling suffocated by any and every social rule, and an eagerness to plunge headfirst into every awkward, unacceptable or downright disgraceful course of action that presents itself. Her string of scantily motivated, knee-jerk reactions moves the plot at a bumpy pace towards a hurried ending, and she comes across as annoyingly quirky, rather than extraordinary. Nor do the other characters fare much better, showing a similar lack of convincing reasons for their actions, and, in a few cases, adding very little to the plot by their presence.
The historical background mostly plays its part in the form of social conventions and mores, portrayed in a way that does not always seem to fit the Civil War era. A few factual errors do little to improve the rather bland setting: for instance, there was no such thing as a direct train from Paris to Rome in 1862, and, had there been one, it would hardly have passed Naples on its way. Quite disappointing.