I love it when I find a new author, of whom I know nothing. I love it even more when that author has a body of work that I can jump right into. Jo Baker's work was unkown to me until I came upon her novel called Longbourn. Placing the story at the Pemberly estate and wrapping the characters of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice into a different spin was the perfect tease for me. I do love my Jane Austen, you see. But wait! This Jo Baker has written other things!
The Telling is the first novel that I've found of Ms. Baker's since reading Longbourn. It, too, is placed in the English countryside this time in mid-19th century. It, too, explores an era when social class defined social roles so rigidly that anyone who dared step outside the confines of those roles became suspect. In this novel, Baker weaves parallel stories - one of a young woman suffering the double whammy confusion and desperation of post-natal depression and grief over the loss of her mother. Rachel must keep wits together and clear out her parent's vacation home in a small village in Lancastershire. Once at the small cottage, though, she senses a presence - an atmosphere - a strange and persistent urge to explore the past of the place. Baker uses the first odd feelings of her modern day protagonist to bring the second story line to readers. 'The Reading Room' cottage ( the strange name of the property) becomes the setting for a young 19th century girl's yearning for intellectual awakening and the circumstances that evolve when a strange boarder comes to the village, bringing ideas and a social change that threaten the village people's entrenched lifestyle and acceptance of social and religious hierarchy.
This is a slow novel to develop, but the way Baker sets up modern day Rachel is clever. Her depression makes her question her sensory experiences at the cottage. Her grief over her physical state and the passing of her mother isolates her, as she cannot express her feelings to her husband without seeming unstable and needy. This makes for an uncomfortable and nudgy feel to the sections of the story when she is alone in the cottage or walking the hills surrounding the small village. One wonders just how she and the 19th century protagonist, Elizabeth will come together ...
One of the things I love about historical fiction is learning about eras of history that I never heard of or that were glossed over in my education. With Ms. Baker being English, I am finding that eras of English history are completely new to me. For instance, this book is directly influenced by the Chartist movement in mid-1800's England. I had no idea what it entailed, so I did some Internet research. Turns out that Chartists were political reformists interested in bringing the vote to all male citizens who were twenty-one years of age, regardless of their property status. The Chartists pushed for the secret ballot, so that no one could be bullied for their political stance, advocated for more frequent Parliamentary elections to combat graft and corruption, pay for parliamentary members so that workingmen could be politically active and compete against the well-to-do politicians. They also pushed for more wide-spread education, believing that a well-read electorate could better make decisions for themselves and not rely on church leaders and wealthy landowners who had dictated what people read and the ideas to which they were exposed (or not, as the case may be). All these radical stances threatened the social ladder of British society in the 1800's. Class warfare was pretty much inevitable. Baker's Mr. Moore, the strange and unsettling boarder character, is the Chartist spark that comes to the small Lancastershire village in the late 1830's to act as a catalyst for change. Thus, the historical storyline develops ... no more spoilers.
Such a good read. I am already looking for the next of Baker's novels to read ... The Mermaid's Daughter will be the next up on my list of winter reads. I just love it when I find a new author!