The Victorian period is considered by many to be a fascinating time. It was a time when all frontiers were being pushed – the westward expansion of America, for instance, or the incredible new discoveries made in science and archaeology. On the other hand, many other borders were being shored up in an attempt to maintain them: British power in its colonies, for instance, or the place of women in society. Despite the rapid innovations on every front that came up during this period, there was much that a lot of people did not want changed.
It is this contradition between the old and the new, pushing borders and maintaining them, that makes the Victorian period a popular setting for writers from many different genres. Many, many books have been written by many notable writers who were alive during the period (Charles Dickens being one of the most notable, of course) and even in the twenty-first century it is still a popular setting for historical fiction. Steampunk, at its most traditional, is often a version of the Victorian period wherein advanced technology akin to what is present in the twenty-first century is powered by steam and widely used.
I was looking for a new series to get into when I discovered Tasha Alexander’s Emily Ashton series, and the first book And Only to Deceive. The blurb for the book provided an intriguing frame of reference: the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig. Although Willig’s series is set in the Regency period, and Alexander’s in the Victorian, I did not think they would be significantly different beyond that. I was, however, proven delightfully wrong.
Make no mistake: I really like Willig’s books. They are a great deal of fun, with a nice touch of romance that makes me smile. However, it is very rare that I feel any real suspense in them. Though the characters often find themselves in danger, it does not often feel like it is enough. In every book, there is always something or someone who will pull the protagonist out of trouble. There are only one or two books wherein it really feels like the protagonist is going to die; more often than not, as long as one is sure that these characters are not the villains and/or are one half of the book’s main romantic couple, then they are sure to survive until the end of the book, because Willig’s books always have a happy ending for the couple at the center of the story.
If And Only to Deceive is any indication, it would appear that Alexander’s books will not necessarily be like that. There is romance, to be sure, but it is not at the heart of the story. Mystery and intrigue take center-stage in this series, with the romance present but not quite the focus of the story. The novel concerns Lady Emily Ashton, recently widowed after her husband, Viscount Philip Ashton, was killed during a safari hunt in Africa. This does not bother her much, however: she married him so she could get away from her controlling mother, so the circumstances rather suited her, since it allowed her to remain out of her mother’s reach, while at the same time having a source of income with which she could do as she pleased.
But as she becomes interested in her deceased husband due to the influence of his friends, Colin Hargreaves and Andrew Palmer, Emily begins to find herself engaging in things that she previously would not have engaged in: an interest in Homer and ancient antiquities, for instance – and finding out the truth behind her husband, for another. And as she continues to follow the thread of her interests – her husband counting as one of those interests – she finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue connected to the black market for antiquities: a world where money is paramount, and where talented artists turn out fakes so authentic-looking that even museum experts can be fooled.
Part of what makes historical fiction fun to read is how well it can conform itself to the actual circumstances of the period in which it is written. I am no expert on Victorian London, but from what I can tell Alexander has taken great pains to ensure that her characters and plotline fit in squarely with the period in which she is writing. The interest in antiquities from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, especially, sets the tone very well, because it was indeed during the Victorian period that Britain began to take a great deal of interest in acquiring artifacts for its museums, and during which archaeologists were doing their digs in Egypt and elsewhere, bringing home notable antiquities for the museums. The case of the Elgin Marbles, for instance, is widely known and is still controversial today. It is only mentioned in passing, unfortunately, though I can only imagine what an interesting plotline that would have made had Alexander chosen to use it as one of the central plotlines of her novel.
But I can only imagine that such a focus would detract from the main storyline, and besides, I doubt that Alexander would have wished to tackle something so controversial as that. Nevertheless, she does raise some very intriguing concerns in the novel, such as the question regarding whether antiquities belong in private collections or in museums. It is quite obvious in the novel that Alexander believes artifacts – the real ones – belong in museums, while collectors must content themselves with replicas, so there really is not much argument on that score. But quite a few of the characters do not seem to entirely agree with that line of thinking, and so the acquisition of antiques and of replicating them so the fakes can be placed in museums, while the real ones remain in private hands, becomes one of the central plotlines in the story.
Of course, this on its own is quite interesting to me since I am a history buff, but if I wanted a straightforward documentary-style discussion of the topic, I would be reading a non-fiction book, not a novel. I acquired this book precisely because it was fiction, however, and it is as a work of fiction that I choose to judge it.
In that regard, it is quite a fun read. As with so many novels told from the first-person point-of-view, it is absolutely necessary that the narrator be endearing to the reader, and it is very easy to like Emily Ashton. She is very calm and not too easily flustered, and has a wryness of wit that I appreciate in any first-person narrator. If she is not quite as sharp as some of the other characters – the male ones, specifically – this is no fault of her own, but a fault of the fact that she is a woman of her time. It is enough, I think, that she shows any interest at all in doing things unconventionally. If she still seems to be groping around as to how to get about doing so, or if her efforts do not seem quite so radical as they could be, it does best to keep in mind that this is only the first book in the series, and so there will be plenty of time for her to truly break out of the mindset and roles imposed on her by Victorian society.
The female characters around her are intriguing as well, though some do strike me as a bit caricaturish. Her mother, for instance, is altogether too much like a stereotypical manipulative Victorian mother that, although I hate her for being what she is, I also rather hate her for being a stereotype. Lady Cecile, too, does not make me feel entirely comfortable, because she rather strikes me as entirely too much like a stereotype of the French libertine widow. To be fair, she does not go about crying “Cherie!” or other such things all the time, but she is entirely too close to that.
I am, however, rather hestitant to call these characters absolute stereotypes, however, particularly because of the fact that this is a first-person narrative. If there is any caricaturing going on here, I can blame it on the fact that Emily likely has biases, and biases can render other characters rather flat. I would be much harsher had this been a third-person narrative, but since it is first-person, I cannot truly call this for certain.
As for the male characters, they appear to be a bit better-drawn than the female characters, though again I blame this on Emily, since her interactions with men would likely have been rather limited, given the period, and so she is capable of viewing them a bit more sharply than the female characters. Nevertheless, there does appear to be a bit of stereotyping going on: Hargreaves, for instance, presents some of the qualities of the typical Byronic hero: romantic and dark in a brooding sort of way. Andrew Palmer, on the other hand, is so clearly the rake that it’s almost not surprising that he turns out to be the cad he is at the end of the novel.
What balances all of this out, however, is the way the plot is constructed. I like a mystery that keeps me on my toes, and this one certainly does manage that. I mostly attribute this to the first-person narrative, since the reader only receives information at the same time Emily does, and moreover, is restricted to her ideas concerning the events that occur around her. She makes on assumption, which will often strike the reader as reasonable, since Emily herself is reasonable, and will go along with that assumption until something comes up to prove both Emily and the reader wrong. This happens quite frequently in the middle portion of the book; some readers might view this as frustrating, but I personally view it as a ridiculous amount of fun, not to mention proof that the writer is doing something right in the mystery department by keeping things mysterious. This sense of mystery does not hold quite well towards the end of the book, because by that point the reader will likely have their own assumptions regarding who the villain really is, and will likely be right, but at that point it is all about catching said villain, and that is a different kind of fun on its own.
All in all, If Only to Deceive is an enjoyable read, particularly for readers looking to graduate from or something similar to the Pink Carnation series. The lead character is a joy to read, and though some of the characters might not quite be up to snuff, the plot itself and topics tackled – including women’s suffrage – prove intriguing enough to blot out any problems one might have with the supporting characters.