Master of the arcane Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night sets the stage for his next complex novel, The Glass of Time. Like fine wine, this is a novel to be savored, the intricate details revealed only incrementally as beautiful young orphan Esperanza Gorst undertakes a “Great Task” at the behest of her guardian and tutor in 1876.
Raised in Paris by Madame de l’Orme and Professor Thornhaugh, a surprised young woman is asked to follow the instructions of her guardian on a mission that will only be revealed in stages. Hired as a lady’s maid to the 26th Baroness Tansor at Evenwood Estate in England, Esperanza - or Alice, as she is called by Lady Tansor - dutifully attends to her employer’s needs, exploring the sumptuous living quarters that house the lady and her two sons, Perseus and Randolph. Recording the intimate details of her days in her book, Alice attempts to gain Lady Tansor’s confidence, ever aware that this woman will never truly be a friend.
Lady Tansor virtually haunts the estate, absorbed in her grief over the loss of beloved fiancé Phoebus Daunt years earlier, the prolific writer struck down in his prime by the infamous Edward Glyver. Watchful, Alice gains her employer’s increasing dependence, the impetuous Lady Tansor given to nightmares, fits of anxiety and a cutting tongue when disappointed by her maid.
Alice is intrigued by the Duport sons, each attractive in his own way, each cognizant of the new lady’s maid. Everyone in the household has noticed that Alice is not the usual servant: well-educated, ladylike, all the more fascinating for her favorable comparison with other servants. But there are secrets here, long-buried and festering, Alice’s understanding hampered by the fragments of information offered over time by her mysterious guardian.
In this elaborate layered drama, Cox mines the arcane and historical for the cluttered Victorian sensibilities of the era, the plot as ornate as the material possessions that overflow the rooms of Evenwood. In each, intricate, precise grouping of artifacts is hidden another secret, another clue to a heinous crime that simmers at the heart of this complex tale.
Eccentric characters abound: the lupine Armitage Vyse; the slovenly old woman, BK; the little maid, Sukie Prout; the watchful housekeeper, Mrs. Battersby; and the pivotal character with the Great Task, a protagonist steeped in her own shadowed past. Cox has fashioned a remarkable foray into the obscurity of Victorian fustiness, in a drama driven by passion and greed, an unsolved murder and a patient, measured thirst for revenge, all disclosed in a tantalizing trail of clues until a shocking denouement.
As a pawn to the ambitions of others, Esperanza struggles to define herself as an individual, questioning everything she has believed. This is ultimately her story and therein lies the power of the tale: “Love, and the secrets it spawned, betrayed us all.”