Entertaining nod to the Victorian novel
Fiction: Another Heartbeat in the House, Kate Beaufoy, Transworld, Ireland, pbk, 576 pages, €7.99
Readers who love their historical fiction peppered with literary references will have great fun with this novel without a hero.
In Kate Beaufoy's Another Heartbeat in the House, two female protagonists drive the story between the London of the 1930s to the Cork of the 1840s. The author invites us to consider one of those fictional characters, Miss Eliza Drury, as the inspiration behind Victorian literature's greatest anti-heroine - that resolute social climbing minx, Becky Sharp.
In this, her second work of historical fiction, Beaufoy has our fictional Eliza, also fresh from Miss Pinkerton's Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen, sailing to Ireland in 1840 to take up the position of governess in Co Cork. Who should she meet on board the ship but real-life novelist and journalist William Makepeace Thackeray en route to write his Irish Sketch-Book. When his depressed wife Isabella throws herself off the ship in an attempted suicide, fact meets fictional Eliza who lends her support to the couple. This chance encounter leads to an enduring, platonic friendship with Thackeray and her supposedly encouraging him to write Vanity Fair.
But first, there's scene setting in mid-30s London. Our other heroine is Edie Chadwick, who works for publishers Heinemann.
Edie mixes socially with twilight-era Bright Young Things and chinless wonders in a time when to come out meant you were an eligible debutante. Our Mitfordesque heroine in question has been 'out' for three years at this stage, but unlike other 'bloody little fools', hasn't a jot of interest in the marriage market. A spell in Ireland offers the perfect escape.
Edie becomes temporary caretaker of a deserted Victorian lakeside house, near Doneraile, north Cork. A dusty box room in Prospect Lodge has that contrivance common to many novels with alternating timelines: an old chest full of journals and letters. In some writers' hands, this is a cliché too far, but Beaufort's observations of the customs of genteel society make this an entertaining nod to the classic 19th-century novel, while her keen ear for the dialogue echoes with the wit of Austen.
In Eliza's too-close encounter with her first potential employer, Mr O'Dowd, she wakes up to find him lying on top of her and who, she says, has "committed a heinous trespass against my person".
Our social-climber is invited to become the lady companion of Lady Charlotte St Leger, the real-life Viscountess Doneraile, and joins the posh set of Victorian Cork. But it's not all jaunting around in her Ladyship's brougham; the backdrop here is the Great Famine and tempering the whimsy are Eliza's glimpses of the devastation, disease and death of starving people by the roadside.
This is a read packed full of period references and with an appeal the same as that which Eliza suggest to Thackeray on Vanity Fair's main character. Aside from the usual "milk-and-water heroine to please the critics and clerics", his other, more interesting heroine should be "a clever woman, one who will appeal to other clever women, like me, who love to read".