Today on The Literary Horizon, we’re going to take a look at two novels that look at three different and remarkable women living in the 19th century–one fictional, and two very much real.
One Last Look by Susanna Moore
Calcutta in 1836: an uneasy mix of two worlds–the patient, implacably unchangeable India and the tableau vivant of English life created of imperialism’s desperation. This is where Lady Eleanor, her sister Harriet, and her brother, Henry–the newly appointed Governor-General of the colony–arrive after a harrowing sea journey “from Heaven, across the world, to Hell.” But none of them will find India hellish in anticipated ways, and some–including Harriet and, against her better judgment, Eleanor–will find an irresistible and endlessly confounding heaven.
In Lady Eleanor–whose story is based on actual diaries–we have a keenly intelligent and observant narrator. Her descriptions of her profoundly unfamiliar world are vivid and sensual. The stultifying heat, the sensuous relief of the monsoon rains, the aromas and colors of the gardens and marketplaces, the mystifying grace and silence of the Indians themselves all come to rich life on the page. When she, Harriet, Henry, and ten thousand soldiers and servants make a three-year trek to the Punjab from Calcutta under Henry’s failing leadership, Eleanor’s impressions of the people and landscape are deepened, charged by her own revulsion and exaltation: “My life,” she says, “once a fastidious nibble, has turned into an endless disorderly feast.”
Harriet, whose passivity conceals a dazed openness to the true India, and Henry, with his frightened adherence to the crumbling ideals of empire, become foils to Eleanor’s slow but inexorable seduction.
Historically precise, gorgeously evocative, banked with the heat of unbidden desires, One Last Look is a mesmerizing tale of the complex lure of the exotic and the brazen failure of imperialism–both political and personal. It is a powerful confirmation of Susanna Moore’s remarkable gifts.
I have not read a lot of work set in colonial India–I think I managed to get through Kim when I was in high school, but it didn’t leave too much of an impression. I’m fairly sure the recommendation for One Last Look came from the esteemed Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, as it’s one of the earlier titles on my list. But a novel in which we’re shown colonial India through the lens of two women, I think, will be an ideal place to start–it’s based on the experience of the Eden sisters.
For some reason, I couldn’t find any book blogger reviews of this book, which I found a bit odd. Krishna Dutta at The Independent found the original Eden sisters’ journals far superior, and disliked a tendency towards stereotyping with non-historical characters. Mary Whipple at MostlyFiction Book Reviews enjoyed its imagery and its character-driven nature, and the novel currently rates 4 stars on Amazon. Because of the delicacy of the subject material, I can see how this could be hit or miss, but I certainly hope it hits.
One Last Look was published on September 30, 2003.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
A voyage of discovery, two remarkable women, and an extraordinary time and place enrich bestselling author Tracy Chevalier’s new novel.
On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms, and landslips, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.
Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset.
Remarkable Creatures received plenty of publicity when it was published this spring; while it sounded interesting, I never really marked it down as something to read. But upon a second look, it seems downright fascinating–fossils, dinosaurs, women in science in the 19th century… all subjects I don’t know terribly much about, but I’d love to know more about.
Swapna at S. Krishna’s Books found it very well-written, especially pointing out the fact that the two main characters’ voices are so distinctive you can tell who’s talking from simply how they express themselves. Heather at The Capricious Reader thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when the novel focused on the history of fossils and how the two women were treated by the scientific community.
Remarkable Creatures was published on January 5, 2010, and will be reissued in paperback today!