Twin sisters Lilian and Alice Talbot are all but buried in their father’s “Collection” of curiosities in Talbot House in Victorian England, trapped in “four gray walls and four gray towers, but by 1857 only one of them remains. Due to an unmentionable disgrace, Lilian has been hastily married off to a missionary bound for India.
Alone with an assortment of charming but eccentric aunts, Alice tends her father’s extensive collection of oddments, Talbot an energetic member of the Society for the Propagation of Usefu and Interesting Knowledge. The house’s great green house has been ignored since Mrs. Talbot’s death, their father absorbed by his studies, particularly photography.
Even with Lilian in India, Alice dutifully moves their fruit-bearing peach tree on its wheeled platform from place to place as the seasons require for its continued health. Here, then, the first metaphor of diRollo’s intriguing novel: two sisters, delicate as peaches in Victorian sentiment, yet sturdy, wheeled from place to place, thriving in spite of unfortunate circumstances.
Then there is the ubiquitous presence of carnal innuendo, the Victorian obsession with curiosities a veil for avid interest in all things libidinous. We have the arrival of Talbot’s new photographer, Mr. Blake, and the interference of the malevolent Dr. Cattermole. These so-called gentlemen are pornography aficionados who hide their scurrilous interests behind the concept of art and the female figure.
While Alice views Mr. Blake with some interest, hoping they might find common ground, she continues to suffer the odious demands of her father and his contemporary, Dr. Cattermole. Meanwhile, Lilian thrives in India, ignoring her husband’s voluble complaints. Even when Lilian is confronted with a face from the past, she barely breaks stride, shedding the shackles of society for freedom from restriction and a well-planned revenge.
Alice is not so fortunate, the object of Cattermole’s compulsion to wield his surgeon’s scalpel. Alice’s situation is dire, the young woman in great and irreversible danger. Trussed in Cattermole’s surgery awaiting the exercise of his evil intentions, Alice finds she can depend upon herself more readily than the somewhat befuddled Mr. Blake. Truly, this young woman needs her twin sister, the other half to her whole: “What use are men, when they bring us only pain and unhappiness?”
In chapters that alternate between Alice’s putative burial in Talbot House to Lilian’s mastery of India in spite of her husband’s failure to flourish, the tale unfolds delightfully, two young women and a bevy of aunts against the wrong-headed machinations of men with base appetites. Interestingly, the real threat to Alice is based upon actual fact; these spunky ladies escape only through their logic, courage and quick-witted response to danger. Alice and Lilian Talbot are my new Victorian heroines.