Monday, May 14, 2012

The White Swan Affair by Elyse Mady (ARC)

Perhaps when Hester Aspinall was younger, she was more fearless and carefree -- but she is not longer that woman. After losing her intended to a tragedy at sea, Hester has promised herself that she would lead an impeccable life as her brother's assistant in his tailoring shop in London. For several years, she has kept her promise -- living an almost invisible, faded life -- content to keep house for her brother and to help him with his livelihood.

Then her perfect life is shattered when her brother gets arrested at The White Swan, a notorious pub. Branded "unnatural," Hester's brother, Robert, is sent to Newgate to await trial and Hester is left to fend for herself and to work to prove her brother's innocence.

But Hester is not alone -- her brother's landlord, Thomas Ramsay has offered to help them. After trying, and failing, to handle things by herself, Hester accepts Thomas' help.

Thomas has his own reasons for helping the Aspinalls -- he's always been drawn to Hester and has seen glimpses of the beautiful woman hiding behind the plain facade. He's had brief interactions with her in the years that Robert has been his tenant -- now he has a chance to discover more about this woman who, in her quietness and simplicity, has captivated him more than any other woman.

After reading the first seven chapters, I felt the novel leaned more towards Historical Fiction rather than romance -- the core of the story is Robert Aspinall and what happened to him after his arrest at The White Swan.

According to the author's notes, Robert Aspinall is a real person (and tailor) and the events at the White Swan and subsequent trial of the Vere Street Coterie actually did happen in 1810. (Author's Notes, p. 366)

Hester and Thomas are Mady's own invention and, I felt their inclusion in Robert's story made for a fuller, rounder character and allowed the author to explore the different facets of love.

Love is the central theme of this novel. Mady bravely subjects her characters' relationships to trials (a literal one at the end of the story) to see which ones will survive.

Hester's undaunting love for her brother and the sacrifice she makes for his sake is admirable.

Hester honest and open love for Thomas' -- her willing admission and acceptance to be his mistress, is similarly amazing -- Thomas and Hester share a love that ought not to be: Thomas is the third son of a baronet and moves in respectable circles. Hester is a fallen woman who also happens to be in trade. They have known that they should stay away from each other and to find love with their own class but their feelings for each other is too irresistible:

"I desire you, when I know it is the last thing I should want."
- Thomas, p. 172

It is interesting to note that there is only one other famous Hester in literature and her character is also tested because she loved a man she shouldn't. (See Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.)

Robert's own discovery of love and self is the most powerful.

Homosexuality was a criminal offense in 19th century England -- and Mady shows us the backlash that occurs after Robert's arrest. No one was willing to take Robert's case -- and Hester and Robert fall prey to an opportunistic charlatan of a solicitor. Robert and the other men arrested with him are treated poorly and suffer in Newgate.

After living a life of denial, Robert finds the courage to say what is in his heart. It is love that allows Robert to survive the hardship of prison. (See Chapter 19.)

Mady makes reference to William Shakespeare's The Tempest -- and it is an apt comparison: Robert and Hester are like Prospero and Miranda, outcasts who are seeking to regain what they have lost --

Prospero had magic and the island's magical inhabitants to do his bidding. Robert and Hester had no power and no magic --

They did have love and that proved to be powerful enough to surmount any and all obstacles:

"We are both of us imperfect, Robert. If you can love me for my faults and my sins, I can love you for yours."
- Hester to Robert, p. 258

This is Elyse Mady's first full-length historical novel and it is full of detail and story, providing us with an authentic experience and unflinching view of life, love and the law in England in 1810.

The White Swan Affair is scheduled for release on May 21.

To read more about Elyse Mady, visit her website.

Disclosure: I received an ARC through Netgalley. (Thank you to Carina Press for accepting my request.)



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