Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2020

Islands of Mercy, by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain’s latest novel is a foray into the mid 19th century and the quest to be your essential self amid the constraints of Victorian England.

The focus is on brave, enterprising women who take the initiative to achieve different things.  Poverty-stricken Clorinda Morrissey departs Dublin where there is no future, and sells the family heirloom to set herself up in business with a highly successful tea-rooms in Bath.  It is in those tea-rooms that the hapless Dr Valentine Ross proposes to Miss Jane Adeane, who at 6 foot 2 inches in height, is known locally as ‘The Angel of the Baths’ because she has a healing touch.  Outraged by his effrontery, she departs in a huff.  She doesn’t quite know what great things she could achieve, but knew that she and her magnificent inches would accomplish something the world would find extraordinary. 

BEWARE: SPOILERS

In London, recovering from this scene (how Victorian!) at the home of her Bohemian aunt Emmeline who makes an independent living as an artist, Jane discovers her sexual identity when she falls in love with Julietta Sims, a promiscuous lesbian who has accommodated her own desire to have a family in an accommodating marriage with Ashton.  To this reader’s surprise, Julietta recommends that Jane should accept Valentine’s suit, have children, family and respectability, and then find ways to continue more satisfying relationships, as she has.

What Juliette doesn’t know, is that her Ashton is a very tolerant man who chooses not to see what goes on right under his nose.  Valentine is not at all like that, and although the reader’s sympathies are briefly engaged by his devastation after Jane’s refusal, he turns out to be a monster.  A controlling monster, and that’s just the spoiler-free half of it.  The men in this book are all disappointing in one way or another: Jane’s father is a doctor too, but he is ineffectual without her nursing skills at his side; Ashton doesn’t have enough self-awareness to see how he is being used.  (A deliberate authorial manoeuvre, I think, to provoke awareness of how behaviour such as Julietta’s is commonly perceived as unexceptional when it’s done by a man).

The men in Borneo are likewise the antithesis of the powerful Victorian patriarch.  Sir Ralph, colonising his own little patch of the British Empire in Borneo, is a buffoon, and his lover, a local called Leon, bullies and insults him while using his money to achieve his own misguided ambitions.  Sir Ralph doesn’t pay adequate attention to Valentine’s brother Edward, a would-be naturalist wanting to emulate his hero, Alfred Russel Wallace* but comes a cropper through his own folly. Leon, an expert at manipulation, blackmails Edward via a poisonous letter to London.  All the characters in Borneo are compromised, one way or another, except for Taminah, Leon’s mother.

And that, for me, is the flaw in this novel.  In seeking to elevate women of this era to an otherwise unacknowledged place in their society, Tremain has created an artificial gender divide where the men are too flawed, and the women are not flawed enough.  Valentine and Leon in particular are overdrawn, with petulance descending into real cruelty that is not entirely convincing.

* Alfred Russel Wallace, was the British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist who is famous for two things: conceiving the theory of evolution independently of Darwin (which prompted Darwin to stir his stumps and publish The Origin of Species instead of dithering about); and identifying in 1859 the line separating the fauna of the Indo-Malayan and the Austro-Malayan regions in the Indonesian archipelago. See my review of The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace, by Tim Severin, who in 1997 recreated Wallace’s historic voyage.

Author: Rose Tremain
Title: Islands of Mercy
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, (Penguin Random House) 2020
ISBN: 9781784743321, pbk., 356 pages
Source: Bayside Library

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for the warning about spoilers. Also, thanks for reminding me she has a new book. I’ve got lots of catching up to do with her work, but I like knowing they’re all there waiting. She’s so smart, and I’m often surprised how much I end up all entangled in the lives of her characters!

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    • Me too, I think I’ve got three of hers still on the TBR and I felt mildly guilty about reading this one from the library while the others are unread… but I did read it quickly and get it back to the library straightaway!

      Like


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