Artifice, portraiture, and gender confusion, these are the assiduously interwoven themes of a busy historical novel (originally published in England in 1995), the first written by the Canadian-born British author of Ex-Libris (2001) and the nonfiction Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000).
Set mostly in London and Milan in the 1700s, the story focuses on the central figure of aspiring young artist George Cautley, who narrates in retrospect (in 1812) the story of how his fortunes took an upward turn when he was hired to paint the portrait of Lady Petronella Beauclair, a suave aristocrat whose beauteous exterior concealed a world full of secrets. The Chinese-box structure, in which one story leads into and echoes another, efficiently reels us in. It’s the enigmatic Lady Beauclair who narrates the primary one (as part of her “payment” to the enthralled Cautley): that of Tristano, a castrato who had performed 50 years earlier in an opera troupe directed by George Frideric Handel. Cautley also makes the acquaintance of (and incurs a debt to) jaded fellow painter Sir Endymion Starker, to whom the younger artist becomes in effect apprenticed—and through whom Cautley encounters Starker’s “muse” (and victim) Eleanora Clitherow, the sinister Robert Hannah (who appears to be crucially involved with both Lady Beauclair and Eleanora), and hears further stories variously concerning all these people and others. King has researched the period with considerable skill, and he tells us a great deal—perhaps too much, rather too discursively—about the techniques of painting, the “South Sea Bubble” financial scandal (which has shaped several of its characters’ fates), and 18th-century society. Handel himself and Alexander Pope drop in briefly, and King’s lively style keeps everything moving right along. It all feels overcrowded, though, even in a fascinating dénouement that deftly ties up all loose ends.
Still, quite diverting and entertaining, even if less accomplished than the dazzling Ex-Libris.