During the Victorian era, a few months after Prince Albert’s untimely death, an archivist arrives at the Queen’s residence of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. His job is to sort documents and file leftover memorandum that the staff had already sifted through and depleted of personal and sensitive information. This gentleman, who was never named, kept a diary to detail his hobby of observing nature and it’s in this format that the story is related. However, it’s not only birds, flowers and weather he records. Upon settling in his own rented house in St Helens–a good distance from Osborne House–he happens upon an elderly lady walking the Duver. She begins telling the story of a woman who lived in France in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte, some 50 years in the past. When he comes across a letter at Osborne containing a striking similarity to the lady’s story, including a great royal scandal, he finds himself ostracized at work and questioning his mental facilities at home. The woman, whose ever-changing physical appearance plagues his waking hours as well as his dreams, claims to be a courtesan of a bygone age. As our narrator obsessively delves more deeply into the history, he begins a downward spiral into an intrigue that interferes with his professional and personal life, and ultimately, his very sanity.
One theme of this multi-faceted story is the juxtaposition of the gloomy and rigidly moral atmosphere of the Victorian era with the salacious court of Louis XVIII’s newly restored monarchy in France. As the collection of leftover Bourbon kings each take their turn on the throne, their English neighbors transition from the decadence of the Georgian era to a more family-oriented, decorous lifestyle. With the added gloom due to Queen Victoria’s beloved’s demise, the English court was a dour place indeed. Our narrator begins the story a straight-laced and extremely proper gentleman, but with each visit with his mysterious lady friend, gravitates toward that which he holds in contempt–all the while grappling with his inner demons.
The history of the story includes an interesting conspiracy theory involving the Bourbons. Unfortunately I cannot elaborate without giving away the story, and so I will leave for you to discover, readers. Nature lovers will find a great deal of information regarding the wildlife, flowers and weather patterns of the Isle of Wight, as well as a minute description of St Helens and its unique area called the Duver. Even if you’re not interested in that sort of thing, there is also the mystery surrounding the lady, and a hint of mystical intrigue. With a fast-paced and naturally flowing storyline followed by a stunning ending, I found this to be a most satisfying read, and count it my favorite from Robert Stephen Parry!