I’m a Jane Eyre person. Everyone is either a Wuthering Heights person or a Jane Eyre person, even if you’ve read neither. Because both are suppressed and passionate and violently lashing out against the straitjackets (ahem I meant corsets) society was putting on their writers. But the former wears that passion on its sleeve. It’s boisterous and loud and bombastic. Rolling hills and what have you. Jane Eyre was always the more quiet of the two.
I haven’t really come across any Historical Fiction that managed to nail that passionate yet held back tone that permeates Jane Eyre. This one comes pretty close. Only apparently, it isn’t Historical Fiction.
The Purpose of Miss Shepley is ostensibly a Fantasy novel. The Fantastic elements are not obvious. It is only hinted in brief flashes of lore that something extraordinary is going on in the background. But we aren’t allowed to hear most of it because our protagonist and first person narrator is whisked away halfway through overhearing most important conversations so lemon paste can be applied to her (perhaps plain perhaps pretty) visage.
And I have a strong feeling that that sort of thing is very intentional. While also reinforcing its theme of repression and individual agency vis a vis social norms and a family legacy, it also creates a lot of mystery about the fantastic elements.
The story follows Edith Shepley, whose mother belonged to the very noble house (or perhaps Barony) of Ewert. The background of her father, on the other hand, is a lot more ambiguous. We don’t know who he is. But we do know for sure that Edith looks like a Wyrm. The story so far is an interesting peek at Noble life in the world it is set in. What I like about nineteenth century literature (and biographies of royalty. Yes. I’m that guy. Deal with it) is this juxtaposition between the ordinarily free and playful process of courtship and the far more imperious matters of lineages and ideal matches. This wasn’t really a problem in most other cultures where marriages were (and yet are) arranged by parents.
In Regency England, that was still probably the case, especially among Royalty but there’s always this almost farcical attempt at trying to maintain the structures of courtship and agency. Wooing and the like. This was probably what exasperated most fathers of daughters back then and irritated most men.
This sort of emotional and political complexity set against the backdrop of idyllic landscapes, domestic scenes and the comforts of royalty is what The Purpose of Miss Shepley is all about.
It requires a patient reader, to be sure. The opening is a little meandering and it takes its time establishing its characters. The characterisation, though, is very well done. The dialogue, descriptions and overall prose style are very effective.
You can read The Purpose of Miss Shepley here.