Wednesday 20 November 2019

Compelling debut of a loathsome Victorian hero, hypocrisy and womanisers

Fiction; The Curtain Falls; Carole Gurnett; Ward River Press, pbk, 500 pages, €8.99

Author Carole Gurnett
Author Carole Gurnett

Anne Dunne

Victorian hypocrisy is exposed in this brilliant debut from Carole Gurnett, an English-born writer who has lived here for many years and did English at UCC.

Gurnett took her inspiration for the book from the most famous actor and impresario of his day, Henry Irving. He made theatre respectable, was a friend of Bram Stoker and became the first actor to receive a knighthood.

Gurnett's hero, Edmund Jeffers, however, falls foul of Victorian society.

In 1897, Edmund has London in the palm of his hand. With full houses nightly at his theatre, the Colosseum, where he plays against leading lady Margueritte Davenport, he is celebrated at the best parties and in line for a knighthood. But life is about to change. Critic du jour, Clive Potter, a slimy Dickensian little character who can make or break a production, has it in for Edmund. Violet, Edmund's wife has scant talent but wants Margueritte's leading roles and Edmund has another secret life with men in the backstreets of London. It is only a matter of time before he is found out and there is blackmail involved before his name is completely muddied.

Leaving loyal assistant Charles (based on Bram Stoker) in charge, he removes himself to the second Boer War. Although his reputation follows him to South Africa, he is free to be himself for the first time ever, away from the suffocations of genteel society.

He meets Margueritte's brother, Lewis, who is struggling with the idea of honour and fairness in the face of army atrocities, particularly towards women and children. Neither can condone the pitiful concentration camps they witness and both ultimately become the victims of their own humanity, though in different ways.

Meanwhile, Margueritte falls under the spell of Violet's wealthy father, Lord Leopold Barrie, a notorious womaniser, but when she fails to stick to the discreet arrangements expected of the Victorians, he uses his connections to lock her away in an asylum.

Violet uses her own connections to take control of the theatre and get what she wants, sidelining Charles. The loathsome Clive Potter becomes a hero for exposing a child prostitution racket. The inequalities and unfairness rankle.

Eventually, though, there is uproar - and some satisfaction - when the British public become aware of the concentration camps, thanks to a lady philanthropist, Miss Emily Hobhouse.

This is an impressive debut. At 500 pages, Gurnett has produced a big book of quality, writing with a poignant ending.

Despite his magnetism, Edmund is undoubtedly flawed, like all her characters, which makes them so real and compelling. The Curtain Falls coincidentally follows a similar theme to Jessie Burdon's recent debut, The Miniaturist, and there is something reminiscent of Kate O'Brien's Music and Splendour about it too.

Donal Ryan is full of praise for Gurnett, calling her "a writer of passion, integrity and great skill", praise which is well-deserved indeed. If you enjoyed the likes of Birdsong and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, this one is for you.

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