Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Review: Death and the Chaste Apprentice, by Robert Barnard

Review: Death and the Chaste Apprentice, by Robert Barnard

Scribner, 1989, ISBN: 0684190028

a review by Rich Horton

(This resurrects a review I wrote for my SFF Net newsgroup back in 1997. I don't cover the mystery writers I read often enough, so I figure posting this one would be nice. It's been slightly updated.)

I seem to read mystery writers in clumps: that is, I find a writer I like, read most of his or her output over a period of a year or two, then move on to someone else, possibly keeping up more or less with the previous favorite, possibly letting the previous favorite drop. I don't think I do this in any other genre: I couldn't say why. Perhaps it is because mystery writers tend to be somewhat prolific, and to write series of novels featuring the same characters. At any rate, in the past I've run through Robert B. Parker, Rex Stout, Ellis Peters, Anne Perry, Peter Lovejoy, Georges Simenon, and others. And my mystery writer of the moment (1997) is now Robert Barnard.

Robert Barnard (1936-2013) was an Englishman who spent time as a lecturer in English Literature both in Australia and Norway (and both locales have turned up in his books). He wrote an academic volume on Dickens. Beginning in 1974 he published some 40 mystery novels and many short stories. The novels are characterized mostly by their dryly satiric tone. They are very funny, and very biting. For the most part, he seems to have eschewed the continuing series format, although he has published several books featuring Scotland Yard's Perry Trethowan, and a couple more featuring a character first introduced in the Trethowan books, Charlie Peace. Given that the non-series books feature one-off detectives, he is more free than usual to turn his sights on the foolishness and incompetence of the crime-fighters, as well as that of the criminals, and in several of his books a main object of satire is the police.

The latest Barnard novel that I've read (as of 1997) is Death and the Chaste Apprentice. This is not particularly recent, and while not his best, it's a solid book, and also a bit less savage than some of his works. It's not really part of any of his series (as far as I know), though Charlie Peace does turn up (and Wikipedia cites it as the first Charlie Peace novel.)

The Chaste Apprentice of the title is also the title character of a fictional Jacobean comedy which is being staged at an arts festival near London. The arts festival is held in part in an old inn, and we are introduced to the cast of the play, staying at the Inn, a couple of classical singers who are also performing at the festival, and the manager of the Inn, a rather odious, snoopy, Australian (Barnard really seems to have it in for Australia). Barnard spends some time setting up the complex dynamics of the characters: a young actor who seems to be falling for the Russian singer, an alcoholic actress, the leading couple of the play, who are married to each other but engage in very public adultery, the incredibly self-centred Indian singer and his manager, the tyrannical conductor of the opera, the eccentric director of the play, and of course the Inn's manager, who alienates everyone with his snooping and his know-it-all attitude. Then, as the play opens, a murder occurs, and the police have to investigate. Naturally, the investigation reveals a variety of unpleasant secrets which don't have anything to do with the murder, before finally ending with a slight twist and a nicely logical solution. (Actually one of Barnard's stronger mystery plots: many of his books, while still thoroughly entertaining, have very strained solutions.)

The true pleasure of this book, as with all Barnard, is the sly sarcastic asides which pepper the descriptions of the characters and events. At the same time, the characters are mostly rather sympathetic, even when somewhat flawed: this is not always true with Barnard, as I have read books of his which feature literally no likable characters. This book is also interesting for the snippets of information about Jacobean drama as well as 19th century opera.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

by Rich Horton

Adrian Tchaikovsky* made his name with a long fantasy series, Shadow of the Apt, then began writing SF with this novel, published in 2015. Along the way he's published a fair amount of short fiction, and I reprinted one of those, "Dress Rehearsal", in my 2017 Best of the Year volume. So Tchaikovsky was on my radar -- and when Children of Time won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, I knew I needed to read it. But -- I sometimes have a hard time getting to novels! I recently bought the third book in the trilogy, however (it was at a convention, and they didn't have the first two!) -- so I finally got the audio version of this first book and read it. (By lucky coincidence it turns out that the book is even my book club selection for next month -- something I didn't realize until after I started it!)

The audiobook is read by Mel Hudson, very capably. I always enjoy hearing an English accent (especially for a book written by an English person) -- kind of emphasizes the whole "separated by a common language" thing. With an English reader, I usually find words pronounced differently from the American way, sometimes almost comically -- there really is NOT a second "i" in the word "specialty"! Except -- apparently in England "speciality" is an accepted alternate spelling! 

Children of Time opens in a star system 20 light years from Earth. Dr. Avrana Kern has been leading a terraforming effort, and now she is ready to release her crowning achievement -- a set of monkeys to inhabit the planet, and a virus engineered to accelerate the monkeys' evolution into an intelligent species. But at the last moment, the effort is sabotaged, and Kern ends up marooned in orbit, the rest of the terraforming station destroyed, her monkeys having burned up in atmosphere. But we soon learn that the virus did make it to the planet's surface, and, having no monkeys to infect, instead it finds some other species -- particularly a variety of spider. Kern uploads herself into a computer, and her physical body goes into suspension. And down on the planet, the spiders begin the process of what we might has well call uplift.

Some two millennia in the future, civilization on Earth is all but finished. War destroyed the Old Empire -- driven by the same political rift that motivated the saboteur of Kern's project. The few survivors of the succeeding ice age have managed to patch together a few "Ark Ships", sending the crews (in suspension along with the "Cargo" -- the potential colonists) to the worlds they believe the Old Empire terraformed. The Gilgamesh has arrived at "Kern's World" -- but Avrana Kern awakens to meet them -- and warn them off, for she wants her world preserved for what she thinks are "her" uplifted monkeys. By this time her physical self is insane, and her uploaded copy more or less constrained to obey the insane part. Holsten Mason is the "classicist" assigned to the Gilgamesh's crew -- an expert on the old Imperial languages they expect to find at the terraformed sites. So it is Holsten who learns to understand Kern. His best friend becomes the head of Engineering, Isa Lain, whose job it is to understand the Imperial tech they encounter (and to maintain the the Gilgamesh.) Antagonists (of a sort) are the Captain, Guyen, who has a barely sane Messianic streak of his own, and the head of security, Karst.

Down on the planet, the spiders have achieve a fairly high level of intelligence, and are beginning to build societies. Tchaikovsky uses an interesting device to maintain continuity with the spiders over their many generations -- he calls three main characters the same names generation after generation: Portia, the adventurer/explorer; Bianca (or "Bee-anker" in Britspeak!), the scientist; and Fabian, the revolutionary male. (In spider society, females are larger and dominant -- and they often eat their mates -- one of the crusades of one of the Fabians is to make that practice illegal.) 

We follow the growth of spider society -- increasing use of technology (especially biotech); increasing social cooperation and organization; a battle with ants for territory followed by harnessing the ant colonies for various technological uses, such as a biogical computer; and, crucially, contact with Avran Kern, whom they call the "Messenger", a god who for centuries has been transmitting mathematical equations, hoping to hear the correct solutions from what she believes will be at last "uplifted" monkeys. More or less in parallel we see the struggles of the Gilgamesh -- an attempt to evade Kern's quarantine of "her" world, an attempt to travel to the next terraformed world down the line, which fails terribly; and a return to Kern's world for a last ditch effort of take possession of the world now owned by the spiders. All this leads to a desperate final battle, as the human history of ecological disaster and genocide threatens everything the spiders have built, with only Mason dimly realizing how wrong this is. And it leads to a striking and quite moving conclusion.

The novel is really cool old-fashioned SF. There is effective use of some traditional SF ideas -- the Gilgamesh becomes in essence a generation ship, and some familiar generation ship tropes are nicely deployed. Even better is the speculation about spider society, and the really neat ideas about how they think and use tech, etc. They do come off, perhaps inevitably, as a bit too human in some ways, though Tchaikovsky tries to avoid that. (The wonderful revelation of what the character is Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky are really like doesn't happen in this case.) But that isn't a big problem, and in a way is key to the resolution (and, I presume, to the sequels.) It's a lot of fun, and I'd say it deserved its Clarke Award.

*(I love the story of Adrian Tchaikovsky's penname -- he's English, of Polish descent, real name Czajkowski, but his publishers wanted a name English people could pronounce -- so they suggested Tchaikovsky, pronounced the same (I assume) as his real name, but easy for English readers to recognize because of the composer.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

An M-Brane SF Double: The New People, by Alex Jeffers/Elegant Threat, by Brandon H. Bell

An M-Brane SF Double: The New People, by Alex Jeffers/Elegant Threat, by Brandon H. Bell

by Rich Horton

My fellow St. Louisan Christopher Fletcher published 30 issues of M-Brane SF in the three year period from February 2009 through January 2012 -- in print! A staggering achievement, really. And the fiction he published was of impressive quality. He had other publishing ambitions -- Brandon H. Bell edited three issues of Fantastique Unfettered for him, and Rick Novy edited an anthology, Ergosphere. (Fletcher and Bell also edited an anthology for Eric Reynolds' Hadley Rille Press, The Aether Age: Helios, sort of a steampunk revisiting of Ancient Greece.) Christopher also entertained the idea of publishing a set of double novels, in the Ace Double format (i.e. tête bèche, each side oriented at 180 degrees to the other, with either potentially the "front.") In the end, he only published one such book -- the one I'm covering now, which backs a pair of long novellas (30,000 words or so apiece) by M-Brane regulars. Christopher was kind enough to send me a copy a few years ago, and it took me an unconscionably long time to get to it, especially given that Alex Jeffers is a writer I particularly admire. But I have finally read it!

[Cover by Jeff Lund]

Both pieces are pretty self-contained stories from planned novels that have not, alas, yet eventuated. Alex Jeffers' The New People is, according to Fletcher's introduction, part of a book to be called A Boy's History of the World. The setting is  Rahab, an ocean planet somewhat isolated from what we presume is a larger galactic society. Humans live on only a few small archipelagoes, but life seems generally quite comfortable, with fairly high technology used in a what seem environmentally friendly ways. There is one unusual feature -- the population is entirely male. It is a purposeful inversion of the societies depicted in stories as varied as Joanna Russ's "When it Changed" and Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet: those are all female societies, this of Rahab is all male. (The other prominent such example is Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos. One more, less pleasant, example occurs in Cordwainer Smith's "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal.") "Jannicke's Cat" depicted the title woman (not the cat!) as the last surviving female of whatever disaster wiped out all females on Rahab. The New People is set centuries later. Genetic engineering allows male children to be born to male couples. Life is calm, almost idyllic.

The story opens with Jafet desperately running out of a building ... we soon learn the building has been bombed. Jafet is one of a few survivors. And one of the suspects in the bombing is a group called the "New People" -- and Jafet has read their manifesto approvingly. As soon as he recovers, a policeman -- a very attractive man -- is questioning him. But it's fairly clear he had no involvement ... Then, 13 years before, we return to Jafet, still living with his fathers. Jafet has realized he is profoundly attracted to other boys, and he learns, or internalizes, that while his fathers love each other well enough, they are, at heart, heterosexual -- and of course there are no women. That, then, is the central paradox of Rahab, a world of all men, apparently a mostly happy world, but a world in which most relationships are more platonic than fully sexual. (The question really isn't asked, and perhaps would be unfair: but could this in some ways account for the apparent, well, pleasantness of life in this world?) 

Things continue on those two alternating timelines: the earlier one following Jafet's early adult life, as he does his global service, a few six month assignments, at various places around the world. More importantly, he meets a man, Evren, a remarkably talented singer. They fall head over heels for each other, as Jafet tries to work around his service requirements to follow Evren on tour, and as Evren makes a place of Jafet in his life, and is clearly ready for much more. But we know all along that didn't work out, for in the present Jafet is still unmarried, and indeed is emotionally a wreck, blaming himself constantly for breaking off with his past love. Moreoever, as the investigation into the bombing continues, we learn that it was an attack on one of the main nurseries in Rahab -- a place where the new babies are decanted, and their fathers first meet them. And one of those new fathers was Evren, and Evren's husband and child are among the dead.

The two strands move closer and closer, as in the one we see Jafet and Evren's love affair, and then the crushing way it ended. And in the present we follow (at a distance) the investigation into the bombing, as Jafet becomes intrigued with the policeman until he realizes that won't work, and as he learns eventually something of the motivation behind the bombing, and also something of the history of The New People movement and its goals (which intrigue Jafet.) And of course Jafet realizes that as Evren has survived he must face his pain and resolve their relationship. And behind all these strands lies the central problem at the heart of life on Rahab -- the only possible sexual relationships are between men, but most men are born essentially heterosexual. (This last presents a distinct contrast to the stories mentioned above -- the Russ and Anderson and Bujold.) Beyond that this is a story about a lovely sunny world (truly a near utopia) with some honest darkness dogging it. It's a really well-done story, that I think will benefit from the additional context of other planned episodes set in the same world.

[Cover by Jeff Lund]

Elegant Threat is subtitled ... on the Demise of Captain Fantomas Patton-Guerrero and Loss of La Amenaza Elegente. This tells us right away that the story won't end happily. La Amenaza Elegente is a ship that descends to the surface of the moon Shanama, in the Alpha Centauri (or Rigil Kentaurus) system, to harvest some of the local life, which is DNA-based, as opposed to the more alien life on Oasis, the planet the humans in this system seem to have colonized. There is a background, only dimly perceived here, of a conflict between Post-humans and still (fairly) normal humans. But this story really focuses on one fraught expedition to the surface of Shanama, and the effect this has on the ship's Captain, his wife Pristina, their two daughters, 16 year old Cancer and 8 year old Toro; as well as the first mate, Khalid, and his son Amr. Khalid and Amr are "slicks" -- the working class -- and Amr has a bit of a crush on Cancer, who seems a vain brat.

The story shows a bit of the normal operation of the ship, and shows Amr and Cancer serving (to different degrees) as apprentices -- intended to learn the ropes. But the ship has been sabotaged (betrayed by one of the crew ) and by happenstance the three children are the only ones on the ship when it goes out of control, and the main action, then, follows a desperate rescue attempt across the surface of the moon, with danger including the weather, and ghost sharks, and a megalodon. Amr grows up a bit -- or a lot -- and Toro has her own variety of heroism, while Cancer shows a different side -- not always pleasant. And Khalid and Fantomas and Pristina and their crew risk their lives try to save the children ...

It's exciting enough, and the setting is fascinating. But I did come away feeling I needed to know more about the back story, and more details about the slick position in society, and indeed the society as a whole, and perhaps especially about the conflict with the Posthumans. It's likely the finished novel would fill in a lot of these details (and at least two other stories in this milieu have appeared) but as it is this novella, though worth reading, doesn't fully succeed.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Review: Carmen Dog, by Carol Emshwiller

Review: Carmen Dog, by Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) began selling SF in the mid-1950s, and it was quickly evident that she was a major talent. But while her early work got admiring notice, it was just offbeat enough not to make her famous -- and in the early '60s she wrote little, presumably while raising her children.* (Her husband was Ed Emshwiller, the great SF artist and also an important experimental filmmaker.) In the late '60s she resumed writing, and continued to produce original and challenging short fiction for most of the rest of her life (her last story appeared in 2012 -- health problems (most related to her eyesight, I believe) caused her to stop.) But like many SF writers, she was best at shorter lengths, and she didn't publish a novel until 1988. In the end, she published only six novels -- two of them Westerns set in the 20th Century, and four SF novels. By the end of her life, people such as me were suggesting that she should be an SFWA Grand Master, but I suspect that the shape of her career, and her relatively small output of novels, kept her just enough under the radar that she never received that award -- though she was named winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award in 2019, and she also won a couple of World Fantasy Awards (including one for Life Achievement), a couple of Nebulas, and a Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel for The Mount

That first novel, published in 1988, was Carmen Dog, the novel at hand. It was published by The Women's Press, an English publishing house which published books by and about women, some reprints and some new, between 1979 and 2002. They had an SF line, which featured reprints by the likes of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, and Octavia Butler among many others, and original fiction by Josephine Saxton, Melanie Tem, and Emshwiller, again among others. (I will say for myself that I applaud the words they published, but the books were often poorly bound and the covers were terrible.) Carmen Dog was reprinted by Mercury House in the US in 1990, and again reprinted in 2004 by Small Beer Press in their Peapod Classics line. I have the latter edition, a really nice trade paperback, with an unusual trim size (5.5" by 7") and a fine cover by Kevin Huizenga.

The book is a delight. As it opens, we learn that all over the world, women are transforming into animals (of all kinds) and animals are transforming into women. The main character is a dog named Pooch, who is becoming a woman. Pooch is devoted to her master and the baby, and when her master's wife, who is changing to some sort of water creature, bites the baby, she decides she must take the baby away. Pooch has also discovered a talent for opera singing, and loves Carmen above all. 

But Pooch's opera dreams, as well as her hopes for reunification with her former master, are disrupted, first by arrest (and a trip to the pound) and then by a "rescue" by an experimental psychologist, who has "plans" to understand what is happening to the females of both the animal and human species. In both places Pooch makes friends with other females, both going "up" to humanness, or "down" to animal species. (While Pooch's sympathies are with those "ascending", like her, the question of which is better or if either is "better" is deliberately ambiguous.) The psychologist's treatments are truly horrifying, and Pooch loses her ability to speak -- and to sing. But she keeps on struggling, and keeps protecting the baby. Her adventures continue -- to a daring escape, a visit to the opera, a sexual escapade with another female and her opera singer lover, and eventually contact with a revolutionary group led by the psychologist's also altered wife.

This novel manages to be both very funny, very moving, and quite pointed. It's a deeply feminist novel, and through Pooch's naive ears we hear pointed observations about how men perceive women -- both those animals who have been "uplifted" and those humans whose nature is tending towards the animalistic. The revolution is most assuredly aimed at allowing women to be free of male expectations -- but at the same time is not anti men -- just desiring a future for men and women in which both flourish cooperatively. As the revolution's manifesto goes: "Neither Conqueror nor Conquered, Neither Victory nor Defeat." It is simply a very fun novel, and a very thought-provoking one. It's beautifully imagined, sly, sweet, witty, and inspiring. Emshwiller was one of the great treasures of the SF field, under-recognized in her lifetime but never ignored, and we should be rediscovering all her work now, ready to place her in her deserved spot in the SF pantheon.

*It's worth noting that Carol Emshwiller's daughter Susan is a fine writer on her own, mostly of plays and screenplays, but also short fiction, including a story in F&SF. Her first novel, Thar She Blows, has just been released. Thar She Blows.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Review: Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon 

a review by Rich Horton

This is a somewhat famous mid-19th Century novel that, I gather, was somewhat (though never entirely) neglected for some time for the usual reasons, in some mix or another -- it's a noticeably "popular" novel in conception and ambition, it was a tremendous financial success (and indeed its author, over a long career, became quite wealthy), its plot is very melodramatic, and the author was a woman (and a woman with a faintly scandalous reputation, at least at the outset.) In more recent times these prejudices have lessened in importance, and it is now reasonably well established in what might be called the secondary canon of Victorian fiction. Braddon's reputation might track, to some extent, with that of her friend and sort of mentor, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, or with her contemporary and fellow writer of "sensation novels", Wilkie Collins; both of whom faced the same prejudices as Braddon with the exception of their sex.

I have had this novel in the back of my mind for a while, and when it popped up recently as a free audiobook, I figured, why not? And I was grabbed from the beginning. It is a great deal of sheer fun. And besides that -- it is really well-written. And there is a lot going on besides the sensational plot that only adds to the interest. Look -- it's not Middlemarch. But hardly anything is! It's a fine novel, with an admittedly implausible plot that is nonetheless fascinating, and with plenty of trenchant observation, well-described situations, and nicely turned lines and paragraphs. 

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was born in 1835 (a day (and 124 years) before my birthday), to a nominally middle-class family, but her mother left her father, who was unfaithful and a failure at his business, when Mary was five. She grew up in straitened circumstances, and became an actress at age 17 to help support her mother, but turned to writing a few years later. She fell in love with her publisher, John Maxwell, who was about a decade older, and still married. (His wife is often said to have been confined to an asylum, while other sources say she lived in her family's home. I suspect the latter is true, and the asylum rumor derived from Braddon's fiction.) Lady Audley's Secret was her first major success, though about her sixth novel (her first appeared in 1860 -- she wrote quickly.) It began serialization in Maxwell's magazine Robin Goodfellow in 1861, but after the magazine failed, it moved to Sixpenny Magazine in 1862, and was also published in book form that year. It was sufficiently popular that it was serialized again in 1863.

Braddon continued to write for most of the rest of her long life. She became friends quite early with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose work she admired, and they corresponded regularly. She died in 1915, at the age of 79. Her writing made her rich, and she was also an editor and publisher (notably of Belgravia Magazine.) None of her other novels achieved the same fame as her first, though Aurora Floyd (1863) still has readers. She had six children with John Maxwell. (Maxwell and Braddon had married in 1874, after the death of Maxwell's first wife.) One of them, William Babington Maxwell, became a successful novelist as well (though his books do seem forgotten now). William was also a friend of King Edward VII (Victoria's immediate successor), suggesting that Braddon and Maxwell had achieved respectability. Mary's brother Edward moved to India and then Australia while she was still young, and eventually became Premier of Tasmania, and remains a somewhat significant figure in Australian history -- so he too seems to have been a success. 

I confess I find Mary Elizabeth Braddon's life fascinating and indeed rather inspiring. But what about the novel at hand?

We open at Audley Court, the home of Sir Michael Audley, and his daughter Alicia. We learn quickly that Sir Michael has just remarried -- a very young woman, 21 or 22 years old, named Lucy Graham. Lucy had been the governess to Dr. Dawson's three girls, a very accomplished artist and pianist, of a very sweet disposition, much liked by the local people, and very pretty. Sir Michael is very happy with his new wife, but his daughter does not get along with her at all.

Next we meet Edward Talboys, sailing from Australia back to England. After over three years in Australia, he has made his fortune, and is ready to reunite with his wife and young son. There is a fascinating conversation with a fellow traveller, a Miss Morley, who has been in Australia for 15 years and hopes at last to be able to marry her fiancé. The two share their hopes, and their fears -- will their loves be waiting still for them? (We never do find out what happened to Miss Morley -- I admit I'd like to know the rest of her story.)

And then we encounter Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew. He is an idle man about town -- trained to be a barrister, and so licensed, but he has not taken up that profession, preferring to read French novels and smoke cigars and take care of his birds and dogs. By chance he runs into a man while heading to his bank -- and recognizes his old friend George Talboys. George asks him for help depositing the money he's made in Australia, and then mentions that he looking for his wife Helen Talboys. And then they see a notice in the Times, announcing the death of one Helen Talboys, aged only 22. 

So the main action is set in motion. George is in despair, but Robert convinces him to join him on a visit to Audley Court. Somehow Lady Audley is never available to meet Robert ... indeed, she makes a sudden journey to London. Robert and Alicia cross swords a bit -- it's clear to the reader that Alicia is in love with her cousin, but Robert, though he likes her well enough, is unaware of her feelings. She does let them up to her father's rooms, including a newly painted portrait of his new wife -- and George is struck dumb.

The reader knows what's going on by now, of course. On another visit George is at last able to maneuver a meeting with Lady Audley ... and then he disappears. It seems he has returned to Australia. Robert becomes obsessed with finding what really happened to him, especially after his visits to the offices of the ships to Australia, and his advertisements in Australian papers, prove fruitless. So he starts tracking, as best he can, the history of George Talboy's life, and his marriage, and his father-in-law and son. And then he looks into the life of Helen Talboys before she met George; and into the history of Lucy Graham before her time with Dr. Dawson. He is convinced that something quite terrible has happened to George, but proof is hard to find. He is ready to throw it all up, especially after a visit to George's father reveals that his father cares little for George's fate ... but then George's sister accosts Robert -- and between her passion to find out what really happened to her beloved brother, and her beautiful brown eyes, Robert realizes he is quite lost -- he has at last fallen for a woman, and he is bound to carry his search for the secret of Robert's fate to the bitter end.

I've failed to mention another key thread -- the story of Lady Audley's maid, Phoebe Marks, and her brutish cousin, later husband, Luke Marks. They have happened on Lady Audley's secret, and Luke blackmails Lady Audley to set him up as proprietor of a public house. But a blackmailer never stops, of course, so -- well, I'll say no more for now, except to note that bits of Braddon's life story show up in this book: the bigamy aspect, a woman confined to an asylum, a man who goes to Australia to make his fortune. 

So -- it's a wildly plotty (and well plotted) melodramatic novel. That's fine, but weren't those a ha'pence a dozen in the Victorian Era? Couldn't (and didn't) Charlotte Brame have done much the same? Well, yes, but ... Braddon could really write. And she was doing -- cleverly -- much more than telling the melodramatic surface story. For one thing, the book is really funny when it wants to be, especially in describing Robert Audley's character, and allowing him the occasional exaggerated rant about women (before he falls in love) -- these read to me like Braddon getting some frustration off her chest about some of the things she'd heard from men over the years. There are other comic delights, too, for example her aside about Lucy Graham's teacher, Mrs. Vincent, and her parsimony: "Mrs. Vincent might have hesitated to pay [Miss Tonks] from very contempt for the pitiful nature of the stipend as compared with the merits of the teacher." (This in the midst of a beautifully observed passage about Mrs. Vincent's poverty and her living quarters.) The depiction of George Talboy's absurdly strict father is also a comic -- or tragicomic -- delight.

Also: Robert Audley on women: "What a wonderful solution to life's enigma there is in petticoat government. A man might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses and fancy it 'always afternoon,' if his wife would let him. But she won't, bless her impulsive heart and active mind. She knows better than that. ... She drives her husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament. ... That's why incompetent men sometimes sit in high places, and interpose their poor, muddled intellects between the things to be done and the people that can do them, making universal confusion in the helpless innocence of well-placed incapacity. The square men in the round holes are pushed into them by their wives. The Eastern potentate who declared that women were at the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. ... They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators -- anything they like -- but let them be quiet -- if they can."

There's also some subtle thematic play underneath the surface. Characters have doubles, characters wear masks, play parts. Inevitably, some contemporary readers see a homoerotic element to the friendship between Robert Audley and George Talboys. I think you can try to read it that way if you like, but -- frankly, not every male friendship is queer, and sometimes the automatic assumptions some readers bring to such friendships can get a bit tiresome. The novel, also, is concerned with class and financial status, and how poverty -- or any change in financial situations -- can drive people. Certainly this is central to Lady Audley's life and actions, but also to those of Lucy and Phoebe Marks, of Mrs. Vincent, even of George Talboys. 

The novel is surely not perfect. For all Braddon's awareness of class, she retains class prejudices, particularly in the treatment of Phoebe and Luke. And she is keenly aware of women's place and society, and she acknowledges its unfairness -- but she also is quite Victorian in her perceptions of gender roles. The characters -- with the exceptions, to some extent, of Lady Audley and Robert -- are not precisely deeply observed, and only Robert really grows (and I'm not sure I bought all of his growth.) There is also a degree of "characterization by looks" and of hinting at character by things like noticing that Alicia Audley's dogs hate Lady Audley. The last portion of the novel -- apparently finished at great speed after the opportunity for a new serialization arose -- is rushed a bit, with key revelations left to a long confessional monologue, and with what should be a major romance plot rather scanted.

But those reservations aside, I found this novel a pure delight to read. It's longish, at some 150,000 words, but reads rapidly. Truly gripping, quite well-written, with some real depth beneath the lurid surface. Highly recommended.