London-born author Jones’ novel explores the troubled relationship of an American expatriate novelist and his cousin, a charming orphan infected with tuberculosis.
A fictional character based on Minny Temple, impoverished cousin of Henry James and model for many of his female protagonists, Emily Hudson is orphaned at 16 when her family succumbs to consumption. Forced back on the tender mercies of her uncle, straitlaced Boston theologian William Cornford, she’s packed off to boarding school, but soon expelled, in 1861, for being too outspoken. Emily rejoins the Cornfords, who openly despise her, except for cousin William, a sickly, scholarly young man already making literary waves in Boston. After Emily scuttles her marriage prospects by rejecting dashing and wealthy Captain Lindsay, a Union officer, her uncle disowns her, but William asks her to accompany him to London, where, with his financial backing, she will be free to pursue her ambition to study painting. In London, William distances himself from Emily, except for weekly dinners at which he doles out her stipend. An aristocratic acquaintance, Caroline Trelawney, helps Emily negotiate a young lady’s entrée into London society—in some ways freer, in others more oppressive toward women than Boston’s. Narrowly escaping the clutches of attractive roué Lord Firle, Emily eventually exhausts William’s patience with her utter heedlessness. (Apparently, he’s unable to discard the puritanical social mores he aspired to escape in Europe.) Not only does Emily get Caroline to pose in deshabille, she runs out in a storm, triggering a tubercular attack, and embarrasses William by dressing down an anti-American dinner guest. Fleeing to Rome, Emily finally achieves autonomy as a woman and an artist. This partially epistolary novel (Emily corresponds with her school friend Augusta, Caroline and William’s dour but deep sister Mary, among others) renders Emily and her mostly harmless foibles believable, but William remains a cipher.
Sure to ignite controversy among Jamesians.