It’s always a pleasure to read new fiction set in the Georgian era, but that delight is intensified when the story is written by a captivating new author like Martine Bailey. I was lucky enough to get chatting to Martine on Goodreads, where she told me about her upcoming Georgian release. As you can imagine, my ears perked up and I dashed to the launch party! Since this blog is the haven of Georgian historical fiction, I’d like to share my thoughts on Martine’s wonderful book, which I have just finished reading.
I have to admit that if left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have picked An Appetite for Violets off the shelf. The cover and the title struck me as a bit girly to start with – I couldn’t have been more wrong! This is not a twee tale of flowers and baking, but a dark mystery that explores the underbelly of Georgian life. Venereal disease, unwed mothers, a cursed jewel, slavery and poison all feature in this rich adventure across 18th century Europe.
Our heroine is Biddy Leigh, a straight-forward but kind-hearted undercook at the old estate of Mawton Hall. At the beginning of the story, Biddy’s life seems simple. She is planning to marry a local lad and save for a tavern of her own. But when the master of Mawton Hall takes a new wife, a rich young woman descends on Biddy’s world and changes it forever. Biddy’s good heart and ambition draw her deeper into her mistress’s life, until she is forced to leave all she knows behind. Stuck abroad with a secretive employer and increasingly shifty fellow-servants, she must use all her wits before she is entrapped.
Biddy has to be one of my favourite heroines to appear for a long time. Whilst hard-working and generous, she has a sharp tongue and will not be taken for a fool. She felt very realistic to me – in almost every situation, she acted as a normal person would do. Moreover, I found her a convincing representation of a rural eighteenth-century servant; keen to advance, loyal, gently mocking of the rich folk whilst envying their possessions. But the real triumph of Biddy has to be her language. As you know from my previous posts, I often struggle when historical authors use outdated words. Sometimes it seems they are just chucking them in to sound clever, or it distracts from the meaning of the sentence. Not so with Martine Bailey. Every Georgian slang word Biddy uses is clearly expressed, and is often used to marvelous comic effect. I have never seen language so lightly and skillfully interwoven into a historical character.
There are other voices in the narrative: that of Loveday, a slave forced to work as a footman; Mr Pars, whose correspondence Loveday reads to us and most importantly, the recipe book The Cook’s Jewel. I liked the touch of letters telling part of the story; it reminded me of the eighteenth-century epistolary novels. And while I am no cook, I found the old recipes intriguing. You do not have to be a foodie to love this book (although you will adore it if you are one!). Bailey’s descriptions and Biddy’s enthusiasm soon give you an appetite for a fascinating culinary world.
Loveday’s character is excellent and again, his speech is convincing. He speaks imperfect English, but it is never hard or jarring to read. Bailey has clearly done her research on the island and culture Loveday would have come from, giving a wonderful glimpse into the man behind the slave. Through his foreign eyes we see oddities of eighteenth-century culture that Biddy would not remark upon as strange. We also root for him on his quest to discover the man he once was. But along the way, Loveday manages to discover one or two other things that thicken the plot . . .
It is very hard to find a genre for An Appetite for Violets. It is a historical novel with mystery, crime, romance, comedy and gothic elements. Whilst parts of the story are dark, the book has an overall cheerful feel to it. It is easy to read and never feels cumbersome. I suppose at the end of the day, it is like one of Biddy’s recipes. There are many ingredients, some of which you would hesitate to blend together, but when all is mixed and cooked, the finished dish is a triumph.