Cox’s second pastiche of Victorian sensational fiction is doubly remarkable for its sure grasp of the genre’s idiom and its strange relationship to his first (The Meaning of Night, 2006).
Nineteen-year-old Esperanza Gorst arrives at Evenwood on September 4, 1876, to interview for the position of personal maid to Emily Duport, the widowed Baroness Tansor. The advertisement in which Esperanza announced her search for such a post constitutes the first of many deceptions Cox’s characters practice on each other, for it was placed not by her, but by her Parisian guardian, Madame de l’Orme, and her old friend Basil Thornhaugh, Esperanza’s tutor. Their successful attempt to insinuate Esperanza into Lady Tansor’s service is only the first step in what they call “the Great Task,” a plot so deep-laid that they can disclose its terms to her only over a period of months. Esperanza, whom everyone recognizes as far too cultured and perceptive to be a lady’s maid, soon catches the eyes of both Tansor sons, the Byronic heir Perseus and his more easygoing brother Randolph, and cultivates an ever more intimate relationship with Lady Tansor, still mourning her fiancé Phoebus Daunt, a bombastic poet who was murdered by his estranged Eton friend Edward Glyver more than 20 years ago. All the while she burns with curiosity to know the reason her protectors have sent her into this haunted household. But readers who recognize Daunt, Glyver et al. will be far ahead of Esperanza, who doesn’t realize that her author has pressed the plot of The Meaning of Night into service as the backstory of what would otherwise be a mystery in the mold of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
A sequel that will provide utterly different but equally rewarding experiences for readers who have and haven’t read its equally leisurely predecessor.