Set in a city readily identifiable as late 19th-century Bath, the novel takes place over one summer. Two events concentrate the mind of the comfortable and prosperous bourgeoisie: the royal visit by the Queen and the architectural competition to build a new hotel in the centre of the city.
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Intentionally like a Victorian melodrama, Colegate's latest (Deceits of Time, 1988, etc.) has mysterious characters, hints of wrongdoing in high places, and a hero and heroine who virtuously resist temptation, though not without some regrets. A retired history teacher is the narrator of a long-ago summer in England. As he makes his daily round through the city of Bath, he introduces the setting and the actors and actresses, as it were, who will have roles in the small drama that then begins to unfold: In 1876, the city, once a fashionable resort, is decaying and forgotten. Hoping to revitalize their town, the city fathers have decided to build a grand hotel and spa. A competition for the design has been organized; Queen Victoria has promised to visit; and the city is agog with anticipation. A mysterious woman, Madame Sofia, who claims cousinship with the Tsar, is new in town. A spiritualist as well, her visions of the city's nastier undercurrents are unsettling but accurate. Meanwhile, the voluptuous wife of the City Surveyor plots to get her husband's design approved; another newcomer, Caspar Freeling, who is ``prepared to be more or less whatever they wanted him to be, on condition that the game progressed,'' seems to lead a double life; and the beautiful and good Charlotte, married and devoted mother of two, is attracted to Stephen Collingwood, the curate, who works with the poor of the city. Stephen's love for Charlotte and sense of inadequacy in his ministry provoke a crisis of faith, resolved only at the close by an appropriately heroic sacrifice. The Queen visits; the villains are exposed; and the hero and heroine come through. That the narrator turns out to be the grandson of Charlotte is irrelevant if not anticlimactic. Rich in atmospherics, settings, and characters--Stephen and Charlotte are unusually vivid and convincing--and yet the implicit melodrama and satire of city boosterism and Victorian manners is never more than a clever conceit. Disappointing, then, despite so much that's good. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.From Publishers Weekly:
Like The Shooting Party , Colegate's latest novel explores the hypocrisies of British society and the subtle class distinctions that subvert moral values. Queen Victoria's 1876 visit to Bath is the backdrop to a tale in which the city is as much a character as those whose intersecting lives reach crisis point during and following the occasion. In what we come to recognize as a moral tale, an earnest but self-doubting curate who serves the city's poor in the slum district (called Haul Down) and the beautiful, virtuous and charitable married woman with whom he unwittingly falls in love are the figures of light. They are contrasted with a sinister man named Caspar Freeling, who claims he is a scholar but is gradually revealed to be engaged in nefarious activities in which some of the so-called pillars of the community are secretly involved. Evoking the period with unerring accuracy, Colegate's reserved, slightly mocking voice conveys the disparity between the pomp and snobbery surrounding the queen's visit and the squalor and despair engulfing many of the community's citizens. If the understated narrative moves somewhat slowly, it succeeds in illuminating self-satisfied Victorian attitudes about moral rectitude and the relationships between the sexes.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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