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Home » literature » fiction » Florence Marryat, ‘Her Father’s Name’ — book review

Florence Marryat, ‘Her Father’s Name’ — book review

I discovered Florence Marryat via Twitter and Victorian Secrets‘ wonderful edition of The Blood of the Vampire. The critical additions being produced now thanks to Catherine Pope (@catherinepope) and the rest of the team at VS (@VictorianSecret) are a fascinating companion to this half-forgotten author, and they’re well worth the investment. Greta Depledge provides the Introduction and Notes to this edition. The Introduction offers a very useful potted history of Marryat’s career and life, and the Notes  offer some intriguing context and insights into cross-dressing, female detectives and female hysterics.

Her Father’s Name made it onto my Classics Club list because I enjoyed The Blood of the Vampire so much, and I think for the sheer rollicking ride of it, I would recommend the former over the latter. More below (*spoiler alert*).

The story follows Leona in her quest to clear the name of her father, as the title suggests. Only after his suicide does she learn that, far from being a Frenchman, he is an Englishman accused of murder who fled long ago to Brazil to hide himself. In infiltrating her father’s family — the Evans — and pursuing the truth, she is accompanied for much of the time by Christobal, a Spanish Don and Nice Guy(TM) who loves Leona jealously and pathetically and seems to feel she owes him the same feeling. At times cross-dressing, and bewildered by the very idea of wanting to marry until the very end of the book, Leona resists his advances. Nevertheless, his assistance — and the convenience of being able to adopt his name and letters of introduction for her own purposes — prove useful.

Marryat’s prose rattles along at a pleasant pace, and Leona is a more engaging character than the cursed Harriet Brandt of ‘The Blood of the Vampire’. Leona’s spirit and sheer gumption, her willingness to leap into and out of various male and female disguises, and her single-minded pursuit of her aim give the story the air of a Shakespearean comedy, galloping along to its inevitable happy conclusion where Christobal gets the girl after all, meriting only a slight grumble from the reader who might have hoped otherwise.

What I enjoy most about Marryat is her sense of humour. Marquise de Toutlemonde, for example, with her name suggestive of her standards, or the sexual jealousy of the male characters over how a disguised Leona attracts the young ladies of the Evans’ social group, are wryly portrayed.

The tropes of lost siblings and secret adoptions are played with lightly, except in Leona’s secret dark thoughts.  Henry Evans’ delight at the proof of his brother’s innocence by his niece is given little thought and reads as pure narrative convenience, but this is true of many of the male characters’ thoughts and emotions. More thoughtful are Leona’s reactions to her new-found sister, Lucilla. A half-sister born out of wedlock (Leona is relieved to have her own legitimacy affirmed towards the end of the story), Lucilla has a ‘weak spine’ and is a hysterical invalid, turning her attentions toward any man who shows her interest: “a phase of womanhood that made Leona anything but proud of belonging to the sex”. There is no disappointment on Leona’s part when her uncle makes clear that she will not be able to claim Lucilla as her sister, but only as a cousin.

There is also something quite refreshing in having a Brazilian woman sweep into the lives of a wealthy but spineless English family and resolve their problems when the stereotype might have the narrative played the other way. Leona’s disdain for the idea of remaining in England with the Evans family is clear. Although she has submitted to marrying Christobal, she does so because she knows that from now on he will not stand in her way; her quest over with, their paths align in wishing to travel to Spain and then return to New York. Still headstrong, Leona can afford to yield if she knows she will nevertheless get her own way.

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