Kirkus Star


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Like Russell's Princess Pamela (1979), this testament of her mother, Melissa, writing in 1811 at age 25, chatters and rockets along, thanks to frolicking dialogue, headlong confessions, a slyly inventive use of real personages, and a zapping of pretensions--with emphasis, here, on the tragic persistence of England's anti-Semitism and caste-based injustice. Melissa Worthing confesses at the outset that she has lied and killed and ""committed unspeakable grossness in the name of love."" But the very young Melissa is a happy one, busy in the confines of her family: her father, the kindly Bishop, who intones unkind pronouncements about such matters as the Luddites and Jews; wise Mother; dear brother Freddy, a Bertie Wooster sort, from whom Melissa gathers a rich vocabulary concerning the nature and use of the ""privities""; and widowed sister Esme, who laments the late Mr. Cooper and occationally has odd visions of the future (as well as a spectral nightly visitor). Like any highly placed family, the Worthings mingle with the available literati, so Melissa is invited to parties and a Newgate hanging (Russell taps horror with the lightest of touches) with such celebrities as: Charles Lamb, who reports on Cole-ridge's opium addiction (""Sam is in 'orrible cyse . . . Sad innit?""); Jane Austen, to whom Melissa offers the Pride and Prejudice title; Shelley, who sports a Venus crucifix; wily Beau Brummell, with unplumbed depths of what might be goodness; theatrical producer Cholmoneley-Cockburn, on whose boards brother Freddy is a smash hit (and from whom Melissa learns a brand-new word which she happily traces through some of Shakespeare's naughtiest quips); and the Prince of Wales, who, in amorous advance, begs Melissa to look past the ""mountain of blubber"" to see ""the wand-like boy beneath."" There are also bucketing excursions into the new science, Biblical translations, and a spluttering of theatrical bloopers. But through all this there is the growing love of Melissa and handsome brewery-owner Wilfrid Summerfield, of whom her family approves . . . until Mellssa discovers that not only is he quite possibly none other than ""King Lud"" (the mythic leader of the factory destroyers) but also half-Jewish. So: agonies of mind follow, then a rape, then the killing of the rapist--and, before the happy close, Melissa will share in a spooky premonition of the 20th-century horror to which bigotry will lead. It's no easy matter to bring off a slightly fantastical period potpourri like this, but Russell has just the right touch: busy, funny, witty, yet powerfully anchored--perhaps a mite too preachily--in gravely timeless matters.

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 1981
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin