Sunday 1 September 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: A Lady of Good Family, Jeanne Mackin (2015)

There are many historical novels that focus on artists—painters, musicians, sculptors. Jeanne Mackin’s A Lady of Good Family (2015) is the first I’ve read about a landscape gardener.

The novel tells the story of the real-life Beatrix Jones Farrand, an American pioneer in the field, who defied the conventions of Gilded Age New York to pursue her own career. It’s 1895 and a 23-year-old Beatrix is in Rome, taking inspiration from Old World gardens, when she meets impoverished Italian gentleman, Amerigo Massimo. Their relationship, set against the backdrop of a changing world for women and shifting European/American power dynamics, forms the heart of the story.

Reading A Lady of Good Family in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn last week
Mackin makes the (initially surprising) choice of framing the novel with a narrative set in 1920 Massachusetts and of employing a Nick Carraway-style narrator. Daisy Winters (a fictional character, said here to be the inspiration behind Henry James’s eponymous Daisy Miller) is an unobtrusive presence at first, but we get to know her even more deeply than we do Beatrix. Her troubled but loving marriage acts as a much-needed counterpoint to the novel’s other ill-fated couplings.

Mackin’s prose is wonderful, her plot is surprising and she succeeds in capturing the colours and feelings of a garden in the pages of her novel, without relying on readers having too much botanical or practical knowledge. The cover of my copy read as women’s fiction, but in some ways the novel defies categorisation—it’s romantic without being a romance, a ghost story sadder than it is scary.

Writers Henry James and Edith Wharton (the latter was Beatrix’s aunt) are members of the supporting cast, there’s a great scheming villain in the form of the nouveau riche Mrs Haskett, and Beatrix’s relationship with her mother, Minnie, is particularly well-drawn. A few lines were a little too on the nose for me about women’s changing place in society but this is a minor quibble and a matter of personal taste.

The novel left me feeling refreshed just like taking a walk in a well-designed garden. I’d highly recommend it.

Have you read A Lady of Good Family? What did you think of it? And which twenty-first century written, nineteenth-century set, novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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