Mistress of My Fate, By Hallie Rubenhold
Step away from the bodice
Sunday 10 July 2011
Mistress of my Fate is a full-blooded historical romp that is eager to please.
The debut novel by the historian Hallie Rubenhold is set in England at the start of the French Revolution, and it leaves no late 18th-century narrative convention untried. Spirited heroine caught between self-determination and social restriction? Check. Family saga with more scandals than the News of the World newsroom? Check. Handsome hero with statuesque build and bulging trouser? Check. Dandies, letters gone astray, and well-meaning prostitutes? Great Big Check.
Henrietta Lightfoot is the ugly duckling of her wealthy family, playing second fiddle to her accomplished cousin, Catherine. When the handsome Lord Allenham hoves into view everyone expects Catherine to capture his heart. So Hetty is not a little shocked when Allenham woos her – with Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, the literate devil. Catherine responds by kicking the manure out of Henrietta, then kicking the bucket. The 18th century, eh?
Henrietta's guardian then insists that she must marry a wilted piece of celery called the Reverend John Pease. Hetty does a runner, landing first at Allenham's estate in East Anglia. After some blissful coupling, Allenham mysteriously disappears. Just what is up with those secret political meetings about French Revolutions? Hetty follows him to London, where she learns that her mother was a heroine of the demi-monde, earning the patronage of rich men through sex. Henrietta enters the family business, in the hope of tracing her beau, now en Paris.
The title, which alludes to Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, suggests Rubenhold's more high-minded intentions: to narrate women's lives candidly in their joys and sorrows. Henrietta tells her story to exert the sort of control over her life that life itself denied: "You may think me a radical, but I have always been of the mind that womankind is rendered helpless by her dependency upon men."
Occasionally, the enterprise comes perilously close to pastiche: "Soon his hands were upon my hair, my waist and running at the edge of my bodice." Blimey! What saves the day is Rubenhold's research, her vivid period details and exuberant narrative. Henrietta is especially pleasing: two parts Lizzie Bennett and Tom Jones's Sophia Western to one part Moll Flanders – with a splash of Fanny Hill.
Episode one of a trilogy, Mistress of my Fate is superior commercial fiction. Most importantly, it is great fun.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Isis burns thousands of books and rare manuscripts from Mosul's libraries
- 2 Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
- 3 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Alien 5: Sigourney Weaver will reprise Ripley role in new movie, says director Neill Blomkamp
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Wolf Hall finale, review: Simply brilliant TV
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit