The Muse of Fire
Romance meets backstage drama in a novel that is long on plot twists but a little short on emotionally believable characters. Grace Johnson, a pragmatic but extremely naïve beauty, flees her abusive father in the first page and meets the usual unpleasantness in the dark alleys of 19th-century London. She is rescued by Ned Plantagenet, the young stage manager of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, who is as improbably chivalrous as his name implies. She is welcomed into the company as a chorus girl just in time to join the company’s summer tour to Bath.
Readers expecting Late Georgian social satire will find that Grace is a heroine more in the Brönte vein — conflicted, prickly, and prone to having inappropriate feelings for ineligible men. She also has the misfortune of joining John Kemble’s celebrated company just as it experiences the devastating 1808 fire that destroyed the Theatre Royal, followed by the Old Price Riots that delayed the reopening of the rebuilt Theatre for months. Grace’s personal life is no less chaotic, as she clings to her dream of acting in spite of a malicious aunt, disinheritance, a marriage of convenience, family shame, and a predatory leading man. It’s an entertaining read for the first half, before the reader begins to tire of the paper-thin characters, but Cram is a good storyteller and knows how to propel her plot past coincidental meetings, unnecessary secret-keeping, and the frustrating stubbornness of her heroine, to a satisfying close.
(Ed. note, 5/6/18: this review has been updated to accurately reflect the novel’s timeframe.)