Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Prisoners in the Palace

I picked up Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel by Michaela McColl based on the recommendation of Khy over at Frenetic Reader, who reviewed this book in January. I have to admit that I didn’t like it quite as much as she did, but I agree with her assessment that “even those who are not typically fans of [historical fiction] will enjoy this one.” In fact, that is a good way to describe this story: enjoyable. Entertaining. It’s a combination feminist social justice/spy novel, fun despite it’s flaws.

It must be said, though, that the novel commits the cardinal sin of historical fiction, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times before: the tendency to dress up characters in period costumes but allow them modern attitudes and language. I recently wrote up a review of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which is an entertaining enough novel that I was able to completely forgive its contemporary language, especially because the attitudes of the characters were more or less appropriate for the turn of the century. Prisoners in the Palace, however, is set in Victorian England – and while some of the young women’s attitudes make sense, the way that they are presented is far too contemporary (and often relies on clichés, as well). Princess Victoria’s longing for independence and eventual resoluteness of character makes sense for a young girl in her position – over the course of the novel, she evolves from a spoiled, sheltered young girl into a young but resolute, self-sufficient queen. The way that Liza, the main character of the novel, is characterized and speaks/thinks is really what is most problematic for me.

Liza serves as a vehicle for the novel to discuss the ways that women – lower-class women in particular – were often at the mercy of men, monarchs and other royals. Having found herself deeply in debt after the deaths of her parents, Liza has fallen from the gentry and into the working class. Instead of attending her own cotillions and balls, sixteen-year-old Liza must put aside her hopes of “coming out” into society and instead become a ladies maid, only able to observe the glittering world of the gentry from a distance. Luckily, she is engaged as Princess Victoria’s new maid, so she’s got it fairly cushy. But then she becomes a witness to what has happened to the last young lady who held her position at Kensington Palace – Annie was also Princess Victoria’s ladies maid, but was impregnated by the controlling and abusive Sir John, cast out on the street, and had to become a prostitute in order to survive.

Liza’s feminist sensibilities are of course offended (as they should be), but her impulsive actions are a bit too bold to be realistic. The novel is able to explore the inequalities that women in Victorian England faced quite effectively through plot – but even so, it annoyed me that feminism of the 1970s came so easily to Liza of the 1830s. Every author who is going to write a novel about women set in Victorian England really out to read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which presents some very forward feminist thinking for end of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the Modernist Period – but while Woolf and other feminists were growing more and more bold, there was still a degree of hesitancy, uncertainty about their attitudes. There was still a sense of propriety and proper femininity that they could not fully shed. Women had a sense of injustice, but most of them weren’t fully able to express it quite so directly and boldly as Liza often does throughout the novel; women of the Victorian Era had been raised by parents and in a society that still held to a much different mentality.

But despite the novel’s too-modern feminist mentality and prose full of contemporary clichés, the story works quite well. I found myself enjoying the novel, gobbling it up like candy at the movie theater. Liza isn’t hired to simply be Princess Victoria’s maid, but a spy for Victoria and her governess the Baroness as well – so while Liza is concerned with her own survival and the sordid fate of her predecessor Annie, she is also involved in Victoria’s emotional and political dealings, which have international consequences. Even though it might be a bit cheesy that the political fate of England rests in Liza’s hands at one or two points during the novel, if you buy into the story, it’s a fun and complex intrigue – it kept me riveted until 1 a.m.

Additionally, I want to express my appreciation for a romance that didn’t take center stage. In her review, Khy noted that “Liza and Will's relationship [was] realistic in that it wasn't all "omg looove!!" immediately, but [was] often tossed aside amidst the drama, only to be brought up again and discussed every once in a while.” I actually liked this, because it showed that Liza was well-aware that other things besides romance had importance to her survival and identity. She was equally determined to work her own way out of debt, avoid the fate of the impregnated and cast-aside Annie, remain loyal to Princess Victoria, and find her own happiness with a husband – once she figured out exactly who it was she wanted to marry and what kind of a life she really wanted. It was important at the end of the novel that she chose Will because she was comfortable with the lifestyle of a working (non-gentry) man, not that she was settling, which shows that she understands the importance of real-life concerns and doesn’t simply idealize “true love.” It was also important that Will both cherished and respected her, and allowed her the room to consider their relationship from different angles. For the most part, this is the kind of romantic relationship that we want for our feminist heroines.

It was ultimately the combination of the feminist character (despite the historical inaccuracies) and spy plot that kept me riveted, and while I can’t forgive Prisoners in the Palace quite as whole-heartedly as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, I still recommend the novel to most readers. Unless they share my pet peeve, then readers will likely be just as engrossed in the plot, whether they are interested in Victorian historical fiction, feminist stories or just plain old spy novels. I’d even say this one might merit 3 1/2 stars.

March is Women's History Month, and this post participates in my Women's History Month Reading Challenge.

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