Splendid late-Victorian romp introducing the indomitable Veronica Speedwell: adventuress, lepidopterist and reader of crime mysteries
In “A Curious Beginning”, I’ve found, rather belatedly, given that book four came out in 2019, a series that I’m eager to read more of.
This came as a welcome surprise to me as I’m not normally a fan of light-hearted historical fiction. I tend to get distracted by small anachronisms and inaccuracies or lose interest in people and plots too shallow to be convincing. To my great pleasure, Deanna Raybourn’s late-Victorian England stands up to my layman’s scrutiny and she succeeds in sustaining a lightness of tone that is powered by strong characters and a twisty plot.
What really excited me about the book was its freshness. Sam Goldwyn is alleged to have said, “What we need now is some fresh clichés”. Deanna Raybourn does a good job in providing them.
“A Curious Beginning” is a boys-own-adventure where the adventurer is a young woman with a self-confidence and a knowledge of the world that would make Holmes look shy and make Watson blush. This simple inversion, combined with a cute-meet involving taxidermy, a hero who provides eye-candy as well as competence and a few set pieces where our heroine bedazzles the soon-to-be-but-not-quite-yet hero with her knowledge, wit and sheet impertinence make this very entertaining.
I think Sam Goldwyn would have bought the film rights on the spot although I’d rather see it done by RKO with Howard Hughes directing.
Veronica Speedwell is a fiercely independent, widely travelled woman who makes her living capturing and selling exotic butterflies. She is a woman of strong passions and deep intellect with a talent for science, a hunger for adventure and firm rules about never taking Englishmen as lovers.
She is also, for reasons she does not yet understand, at the centre of a complex plot by shady characters who seek to abduct or kill her. The plot, when it is revealed, has the advantage of being truly bold in scope and (just about) plausible. The threats to her lead to her taking refuge with Stoker, an eccentric, irascible but pleasant to look at almost-hero who hides her first amongst the members of a circus/freakshow and then amongst the equally strange members of the English aristocracy.
The plot romps along, dispensing wit, banter, moments of (mostly repressed) sexual tension and bursts of physical conflict as it reveals itself.
Veronica Speedwell is the heart of this novel. Her spirit and wit power it. She’s impressive but also quite human. As well as being a serious scientist, she has a passion the fictional adventures of Arcadia Brown, Lady Detective and adopts Arcadia’s habit of declaiming “Excelsior” when on the trail of the bad guys. I thought this was a wonderful idea that filled out Veronica’s character, provided an in-joke for readers and made Stoker seem boorish (if still eye-catching) by his I-don’t-read-low-fiction snobbish response.
I was deeply impressed by Raybourn’s ability to sustain a playfully humorous tone while still developing her main characters into real(ish) people and unrolling the plot of the mystery at an effective pace. It’s really quite masterful. The result was a refreshing and entertaining read, which I was much in need of.
I listened to the audiobook version and I thought Angèle Masters did an excellent job of bringing Veronica to life. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.