Weldon’s second installment in her series of Edwardian parlor novels takes place in the months leading up to the Coronation of King Edward VII (1901-1910).
In the 1901, the fatalism of the Victorian years is coalescing into a new generation of discontents tired of conventional restraints. Despite this new modernism, most women are in transition, still encumbered by painful corsets while fighting for the right to vote. Victorian morals and a lack of women’s knowledge about their bodies only perpetuate the frustration of limited choices.
In this episode, Weldon turns her attention to Edwin, the eldest brother of Robert, Earl of Dilberne. Edwin has a daughter called Adela, a pale and angelic girl of sixteen. Officious and cruel, and dedicated to the service of God, Edwin seeks to prepare Adela for a future convent life of humility, devotion and obedience. These early sections of the novel circle around Adela’s hopes and fears as she does battle with the desires of her meek mother, her fundamentalist father, and the long-festering emotional problems in Yatbury Rectory, characterized by Edwin’s anger that Robert took away his inheritance and maid Ivy’s advice to Adela to keep her legs together no matter what: “it’s better to be a bride to a man of flesh and blood.”
Back in London, Isobel, Robert’s beautiful, competent wife, acts on a generous impulse, placing three spare tickets to the Coronation in an envelope and addressing it to Yatbury Rectory. These actions set off a sequence of events that
magnify Isobel’s insecurities over her humble origins. Amid sins of omission and a fiery blast from hell, a disaster forces Adela to live with the Bishop of Bath and Wells.
There she meets colonial Frank Overshaw. When Frank announces that he is in love with her, naive Adela
begins to contemplate her future with a mix of hope and despair.
Sputtering into a tormenting veritable end of days, Robert is both disturbed and upset by his brother’s death while eccentric Rosina lets principle override her self interest. Even the secondary characters have a manic edge and hint of desperation to their lives. While Robert and Isobel's children, Rosina and Arthur, and
Arthur's American wife, Minnie, do much to advance the plot, the gist of the book is not too difficult to surmise as Weldon shepherds us through a panorama of Edwardian life at a time of enormous change and attempts to present a world ready to adopt more progressive ideas after the death of Queen Victoria.
Although Weldon combines a motley crew of real and fictional personages, she quite simply runs out of steam, her plot sinking as she reels off scenes like a college book report. The result completely diminishes the impact of the tale, converting a sardonic treatise on the upper classes into tender-hearted extinction. The best parts of the narrative
include Isobel pining over her humble origins (she’s the illegitimate daughter of a miner and a soubrette), Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough,
who gossips over her Coronation plans, and poor Minnie, always so shocked at the upper classes in this strange, wet, ruined winter landscape.
As the novel moves along, Weldon switches viewpoints. Adela likes her life with maid Ivy and sees nothing but a good, steady future,
while Isobel is disillusioned by her privileged existence in a world where she's misunderstood. The novel has a good beginning, exposing the ill intentions of jealousy and thwarted love in turn-of-the-century England. By the end, however, Weldon
hasn’t framed her novel carefully enough, and her privileged world of pettiness and entitlement comes across as tedious and boring.