The intriguing world of nineteenth century Victorian high society, with its ruffled skirts and disciplined social manners, is crossed with the historical suspense novel in And Only to Deceive, the first book in Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily Mysteries series. In fact, as author Martha O’Connor writes, “Had Jane Austen written The Da Vinci Code, she may well have come up with this elegant novel.” Lady Emily Ashton, the headstrong heroine, finds herself acting as amateur detective in a mystery that takes her to the quiet corners of the British Museum, where she uncovers an art forgery plot involving artifacts from the Greco-Roman galleries, and the shadowy streets of Paris where a possible murder only complicates matters. All while being pursued by two very prominent and handsome suitors, of course.
When Viscount Philip Ashton unexpectedly dies in an African hunting expedition, his young and beautiful wife, Lady Emily Ashton, finds herself a widow after only a few short months of marriage. Eager to discover the sort of man her late husband was, Emily pursues his interests in classical antiquity and finds a man much more interesting and mysterious than she had initially thought. More than that, however, she finds evidence to suggest that her husband may not have been as honest as she thought, uncovering a complicated plot of art forgeries involving some of the best artifacts exhibited in the British Museum. Compounding the mystery are the two friends of the late Viscount – Mr. Colin Greaves and the son of a Lord, Andrew Palmer – who both seem to show mysteriously equal interest in both Emily and her surprisingly authentic collection of classical antiquities.
With the help of a colorful mix of female friends – who, when considered together, exhibit the right combination of intelligence, spunk, and timidity – Emily sets out to get to the bottom of the forgeries whilst also happening upon the unpleasant discovery that her late husband’s death may not have been accidental. Unable to ascertain if she can trust the attentive Hargreaves or the charming Palmer, Emily moves forward to uncover the mystery on her own, attempting to prove to herself and to all those around her – particularly her domineering, overprotective mother – that she is capable of existing in nineteenth century Victorian England as a person in her own right.
Alexander’s first novel shows her promise, with an attention to historical detail that will only impress her readers. Interspersing historically correct detail of Greek antiquity with accurate portrayals of societal roles in late Victorian England, Alexander creates a novel that is every bit as layered as it is entertaining. The best thing about the novel is its female characters. Rarely straying into archetype or tired stock characters, Alexander breathes life into charismatic, intelligent females who are fully-formed and varied. Emily’s older, Parisian friend, Cecile du Lac, happily enjoys her widowhood status as it frees her to explore the shadowy corners of Paris without too much notice. Emily’s intellectual, American friend, Margaret, encourages Emily’s interests in classical antiquity and pushes her to attend university lectures, much to the dismay of Emily’s mother. And, lastly, Emily’s fellow English friend, Ivy, prefers a quiet rebellion, choosing to act at home rather than on a more public scale. Through the complexity of its female characters, the novel distinguishes itself from the countless number of modern-day reimaginings of Victorian England.
Alexander, in the novel’s afterword, points out the importance of creating a character that was both part and outside of her society. As an unmarried woman, Emily would have been subject to Victorian society’s repressive rules concerning the appropriate interests and activities of a young woman and, consequently, Alexander had no choice but to imagine as her heroine a widow, a female figure of society with enough freedom to be able to travel and pursue interests with little consternation. Through these sort of details, Alexander is able to create a sympathetic character for the modern-day reader who is, nevertheless, still very much a part of her era.
An admirable debut novel, And Only to Deceive is engaging and entertaining although, admittedly, some of its plot twists are predictable. Nevertheless, the next book in the series, A Poisoned Season, also featuring Lady Emily Ashton, will undoubtedly be entertaining. And while, strictly speaking, Jane Austen does not belong to the Victorian era, there is enough overlap for this book to be recommended to those who find this general time period of interest.
4 out of 5 Stars
And Only to Deceive: Lady Emily Mysteries (Book 1), by Tasha Alexander
Trade paperback (336) pages
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins © 2006; text Aia A. Hussein © 2011, Austenprose.com