Wednesday, March 12, 2008

book review: Lady of Milkweed Manor by Julie Klassen

Title: Lady of Milkweed Manor
Author: Julie Klassen
Publisher: Bethany House, January 2008
Genre: Historical Fiction
ISBN: 0764204793

“Twenty-year-old Charlotte Lamb laid her finest gowns into the trunk . . . . Then came her promenade dresses, evening dresses and gayer day dresses. . . .

She looked at the trunk filled with her beautiful years, her happy vain youth, and firmly shut the lid.”

In this way Julie Klassen introduces us to Charlotte on the morning of the day she leaves home – to the good-riddance of her cold father, the vicar, and her jealous sister. But the leaving is anything but a relief to her. For she is on her way to London and Milkweed Manor, a lying-in hospital for unwed mothers. In Lady of Milkweed Manor, Klassen goes on to tell the story of Charlotte’s coming-of age through the birth of her child and the difficult decisions she must make as a single mother in early 19th century England.

Klassen establishes and sustains the historical ambience of the book with all the right paraphernalia. She’s obviously done her homework into what people wore, ate, drove, how they spent their leisure, even how they talked: “A pleasant prospect?”, “How fortuitous . . . .”, “Is this a new affliction?” The society she has created is rife with class consciousness, courtly though sometimes insincere manners, and strong ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable. It reminded me of the world of Jane Austen.

I found the characters, who take their cues from their time and place, realistic, though sometimes irritating. People then were so ingratiatingly polite and stuck on appearances! Toward the book’s first lady Charlotte I felt mostly sympathy. Dr. Daniel Taylor is a very nice man – almost too virtuous to be believed – and worthy of the romantic tension that flows between Charlotte and him through much of the story. The only rank villains are the immediate members of Charlotte’s own family. Other characters like Lizette, Katherine and Charles provoked a range of feelings in me, from pity to outrage.

The plot is neat and well-conceived, though there were times when I just knew where Klassen was taking me by the way she manipulated events. In other words, sometimes the plot felt more contrived than inevitable. The ending is managed nicely though, and the story kept my interest.

The book includes some nice stylistic touches like the epigrams at the beginning of each chapter. These brief bits, taken from books, newspapers, medical writings, hymns and letters of the time, focus on the milkweed plant, wet nursing, and medical and common wisdom. They not only kept me immersed in the atmosphere of the time but through them Klassen manages to slip in some lovely symbols. One such is the butterfly, which becomes a metaphor of what the story’s events achieve in Charlotte’s life.

One of the book’s predominant themes is love, and the sacrifices that love makes possible between lovers, and parent and child. Mothering is another main theme. How our views of pregnancy and mothering have changed from then to now! The book is also an interesting study of how motherhood was different for the rich versus the poor. It is in the role of mother that Charlotte makes her most agonizing decisions and proves herself a heroine worthy of our respect and admiration. Klassen also explores at length the part wet nurses played in the scheme of 19th century parenting.

Lady of Milkweed Manor will warm the heart of any mother – experienced or to-be. Women of all ages will find in it not only a beautiful tale but a fascinating study of women’s roles in a time not so terribly distant. I’d say bravo on a fine debut – and here’s hoping for another finely crafted historical from Klassen soon.

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