Portrait of a Marriage
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What a splendid idea for a novel: the private diary kept (in French, for secrecy) by the wife of English literature’s most celebrated diarist—and British novelist George, best known for such suspense thrillers as Acid Drop (1975), carries it off with considerable success. French-born Elizabeth, the daughter of a Huguenot scientist, married up-and-coming civil servant Samuel Pepys when she was 15. In George’s skillful reimagining of the historical record, she begins her journal after approximately a year of marriage. It’s a lively, sometimes truculent accounting of household duties and annoyances, the couple’s several acquaintances with nobility and royalty (as “Sam” rises in the public world, taking such government positions as Secretary to the British Admiralty, and is accepted into London’s Royal Society), and miscellaneous other honors and excitements. Elizabeth is a beauty who unwittingly male attention (such as that of the Earl of Sandwich, Sam’s epicurean patron); a woman of spirit not at all slavishly devoted to her husband (“He isn’t all my life”), who enjoys as well the satisfactions of reading romantic poetry, and can turn a polished aphoristic phrase worthy of Jane Austen (“the nature of fondness [consists] not so much in tenderness as in dread of what loss of the other would mean”). Her diary entries, recorded at irregular intervals, vividly detail such momentous events as the “plague summer” of 1665 and the Great Fire of London. But the epochal events of Elizabeth’s life are her failure to conceive (one entry is a plaintive “list of things to do for childlessness”) and the accidental discovery of Sam’s dalliance with a young housemaid” a crisis that gives Elizabeth an upper hand she never thereafter relinquishes until her death (at age 29) of typhoid fever. An ingenious fictional invention—and, as it happens, an appealing companion volume to Samuel Pepys’ own wonderfully entertaining Diary.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-20554-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1999