Wednesday 3 May 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Parting Glass, Gina Marie Guadagnino (2019)

Gina Marie Guadagnino’s 2019 The Parting Glass has many of the elements I love to see in books I review for my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. Not only does the story take place in the 1830s, but the location is New York City, our heroine is Irish, and the subject matter is forbidden love (including several lesbian romances). 

Mary Ballard is lady’s maid to society beauty Charlotte Wharton, whom she’s secretly and passionately in love with. But she’s already lost one life for having a sexual relationship with a woman and, what’s more, Charlotte is having sex with Mary’s twin brother Johnny, even though she’s meant to remain a virgin until marriage.

Guadagnino does a great job painting a picture of the upstairs/downstairs world of the Wharton household, and also the very different world Mary and Johnny inhabit on their nights off, drinking at an Irish bar with publican Dermot, who knows their past and their real names. Another bright spot is the character of Liddie, a half-Black sex worker Mary meets and develops a relationship with over the course of the novel. 

There’s plenty of action, the stakes are high, and the novel reaches a dramatic climax, which delivers on the marketing promise that, in The Parting Glass, “Downton Abbey meets Gangs of New York.” 

What was less clear to me was whether Mary is a character we’re supposed to relate to and sympathize with. Her sexual obsession with Charlotte, while realistic, has incestuous overtones, which some readers may find off-putting. I actually wish Guadagnino had leaned into this even more at the start of the novel, but given Mary a character arc, as she came to a new, mature understanding of romantic love thanks to her reciprocal relationship with Liddie. Instead (slight spoiler here!), I left the novel feeling that Mary had treated Liddie pretty poorly and disappointed that she was still putting Charlotte and her style of upper-class, White beauty on a pedestal. 

Have you read The Parting Glass? I’d love to hear what you thought of the novel. Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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