Review by Thecla W:
The novel opens in 1829 with a display at Neptune’s Grotto, a pleasure garden in London. Letizia, the lively daughter of Mme Oriano, owner of a firework factory, performs by sliding down a rope as fireworks go off around her. Caleb Fuller, Madame’s business partner, is full of lust for Letizia and after Madame is injured in a fire at the factory, Letizia, under pressure from her mother, agrees to marry Caleb. He is dour and mean-spirited and belongs to a puritanical sect called the Peculiar Children of God, while Letizia is lively, passionate and a Catholic.
This unhappy marriage produces children and then grandchildren, including Bram, who resembles his grandmother rather than the unpleasant Fullers. Encouraged by Letizia, Bram runs away from home and becomes an actor. He marries Nancy, also an actor, and they have a daughter, another Letizia. Bram is killed in an accident on stage and the rest of the novel shows how Nancy has to fend for herself, finding work and bringing up her daughter.
This is a light-hearted and entertaining novel, dominated by the character of Letizia. Caleb sees her as a rebellious woman who must be tamed but is clear that while he has some power over her body, he cannot tame her soul. She retreats from the gloomy, puritanical household and lives mainly in her bedroom, which she has furnished and decorated in lavish style, and spends her time reading French novels.
Letizia’s spirited quality is present in only one of her children, the unfortunate Caterina, who runs away and dies in Paris after a short and dissipated life. But it surfaces again in Bram, her grandchild. Once Bram has run away the focus is on him and Nancy but with Letizia’s spirit in the background throughout, manifest in the occasional letter and one meeting.
It is a novel full of contrasts; between a particular kind of narrow-minded Nonconformism and Catholicism; between respectability and the theatre and to a certain extent between men and women.
None of the warmth and kindness in the story, and there is a lot, comes from the puritanical Fullers. Apart from Caterina and Bram, they are determined that everyone in the household should conform to their pleasure-denying sense of what is right and proper behaviour. Caleb, his son, Joshua and his grandson, also Caleb, are all bullying patriarchs. Whereas the Catholic characters, Letizia, Nancy and a nun who helps and advises Nancy, are much more life-affirming and accepting of others.
Although he lusted after Letizia and married her, Caleb was horrified by her career as a performer, at one point calling her a “shameless minx”. He regards the theatre as not at all respectable. But Mackenzie portrays the theatre as a line of work like any other, engaged in by all kinds of people, many of whom show great kindness to Nancy.
After Bram’s death, it is difficult for her to find work and she goes to visit the Fullers. Letizia has no money to give her but is kind and encouraging but Caleb makes it plain that he has no intention of doing anything for Nancy or her daughter. By contrast, various theatre people go out of their way to help her.
Of the main characters, it is generally the men who are unkind and unhelpful, like the Fullers. One man, John Kendrick, who pays for Nancy to have singing lessons appears to be different but in fact has the ulterior motive of making her his mistress. Nancy’s father may have affectionate feelings for her but he is an alcoholic. The female characters are much more appealing in their warmth and solidarity.
The characterization is vivid. The older Letizia is an indomitable woman with a marvellously waspish tongue, used for berating her husband and their horribly puritanical offspring. Nancy is a warm and engaging person whose troubles engage the reader’s sympathy. These are dealt with realistically; her difficulty finding work, money, how to make sure her daughter is educated.Also there is a wonderful landlady, Mrs Pottage, who becomes a good friend of Nancy’s. She is loud and cheerful and stands no nonsense from anyone. And the hard, narrow nonconformism of the Fullers is effectively presented.
Overall, this is a lively, enjoyable read.