A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading a short, Brontë inspired story, Brizecombe Hall by Catherine E. Chapman. You can read my review of it by clicking here. Shortly afterwards I was delighted to be contacted by the author herself, who very kindly offered me a copy of her latest novel, Art and Grace, to read and review. I accepted the offer, but due to the slightly crazy year that I’ve had, it’s taken me a long time to read and review the novel and I can only apologise for this delay. So let’s get down to business.
Art and Grace is a Regency Romance, set in Bristol, and later, the Somerset countryside. During our correspondence, Chapman informed me that although the novel was not directly related to the Brontës ‘writings, it was inspired their works, and I can certainly see a few nods to their own fiction. Jane Austen also sprang to mind when I was reading the novel, predominantly due to the time in which Art and Grace is set. However, the novel is not your typical Regency Romance; with many secondary characters, lots of plot ends, a few twists, and a mixed race protagonist, it’s a fresh, and 21st century, take on the genre.
Protagonist Bess (also referred to as Elizabeth and Grace) is a mixed race woman with an ambiguous status who is living with the remaining members of the aristocratic Liston family. Part servant, part companion to Artemisia Liston, Bess attempts to shield Artemisia from her brother Richard’s coldness and hostility both before and after the death of the Listons’ mother. Artemisia has no value to Richard, financial or familial, and he attempts to marry her off to a handsome naval captain, Adam Bryce. Artemisia and Bryce have no interest in one another, but there is a clearly a spark there between Bess and Bryce. Following the death of Mrs. Liston and Bryce’s disappearance, Bess accompanies Artemisia and an old servant named Hannah to Aunt Sarah Liston’s house. Whilst there Bess struggles to hide her secrets from Artemisia, and the two strike up a friendship with struggling artist George Darnley (the only completely likeable character in the novel), and the mysterious and wealthy Sebastian Weston.
Sparks fly between these characters, and it remains unclear at times who exactly will pair off together. Due to the continuing ambiguity of her status in Aunt Sarah’s household, Bess fears for her future and agrees to sit for George, who has been commissioned to paint her picture for several gentlemen. There are many twists and turns, and mysteries to be solved as the narrative continues such as who wanted the picture of Bess, the Listons’ family secret, Bess’s own parentage, the reason for Richard’s downward spiral and increasing hostility, Mr. Weston’s true intentions, and Bryce’s disappearance. Most of these plotlines are wound up nicely and satisfactorily in the end. However, I couldn’t help thinking that Weston’s similarities to another male character in novel could have been explained in some way, in addition to his mysterious and forceful desire for one particular character which ultimately ends up going, inexplicably, nowhere.
I mentioned above that Darnley is perhaps the only completely likeable character in the novel, but this is not a bad thing. The flaws and inconsistencies of some of the other characters give a truer picture of the way that human beings think, feel, react, and function in reality. When reading the novel, I had a sense of three dimensional characters leaping from the page, rather than flat, one dimensional, and predictable creations. For me, the ending was far from perfect, but in a realistic way; people lie, people hurt, and people inflict pain onto others. The traces of these actions can never truly be eradicated, but it is still possible to move forwards if one desires to.
I pick up on little Brontë references everywhere, and here I was forcibly reminded of the spoilt and arrogant John Reed from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre whenever I encountered the odious Richard Liston. Additionally, certain aspects of Weston’s teasing nature reminded me more of Charlotte’s character Edward Rochester than Anne Brontë’s own Mr. Weston from Agnes Grey. The old servant, Hannah, also reminded me of the Rivers’ family servant in Jane Eyre. I also thought there was a touch of Jane Austen’s Persuasion hanging over Art and Grace at times.
This may be undeniably a Regency Romance, but it is a fresh and modern take for those who like their heroines more active, and in some ways, more cunning, with the ability to look out for themselves in a cut-throat world when necessary. In short, I found this to be another short and engaging read and I would certainly recommend it. I would once again like to thank the author for kindly providing me with a copy.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon.
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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