With expectations based on her recent reading of Jane Eyre, Annie Phelan comes to the rambling country estate of Isabelle and Eldon Dashell to work as a maid and innocently upsets the dynamics of the household. The reality she encounters is a harried mistress of the house with fingertips black from developing photographs and a cartographer husband who fantasizes over maps of explorations long ago. Childless and determined to have her photographs taken seriously as art, Isabelle is unhappy with her present work using household staff as models. When Annie volunteers to take the washmaid's role of Guinevere beseeching Arthur, played by the gardener, to forgive her affair with Lancelot, Isabelle finds the inspiration for her art. Likewise, when Eldon discovers Annie borrowing books from his library and showing interest in exploration, he finds a perfect fantasy companion for his imaginary journeys. Meanwhile, Annie struggles with her own desire to learn about her family in Ireland as she was given to a couple immigrating to England during the famine in order to increase her possibility of survival.
In this novel Helen Humphreys uses Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron as the model for this exploration of women's roles in the 1860s. While many differences exist between the fictional photographer and the real woman, both photographers were able to work because of their access to money and both were inspired by their maid. Readers who enjoy books about women's roles, social classes, and art in Victorian England will find this small novel a treasure. Sylvia Wolf's book Julia Margaret Cameron's Women (770 WOLF, SYLVIA) published in conjunction with an exhibition of her work discusses the artist and her fascinating portraits of women.
Reviewed by ds, 11/01. Other reviews by ds.