For Emily, accepting the proposal of Philip, the Viscount Ashton, was an easy way to escape her overbearing mother, who was set on a grand society match. So when Emily's dashing husband died on safari soon after their wedding, she felt little grief. After all, she barely knew him. Now, nearly two years later, she discovers that Philip was a far different man from the one she had married so cavalierly. His journals reveal him to have been a gentleman scholar and antiquities collector who, to her surprise, was deeply in love with his wife. Emily becomes fascinated with this new image of her dead husband and she immerses herself in all things ancient and begins to study Greek.
Emily's intellectual pursuits and her desire to learn more about Philip take her to the quiet corridors of the British Museum, one of her husband's favourite places. There, amid priceless ancient statues, she uncovers a dark, dangerous secret involving stolen artefacts from the Greco-Roman galleries. And to complicate matters, she's juggling two very prominent and wealthy suitors, one of whose intentions may go beyond the marrying kind. As she sets out to solve the crime, her search leads to more surprises about Philip and causes her to question the role in Victorian society to which she, as a woman, is relegated
When I read the back cover of this book I was immediately interested. There's something very appealing and romantic about getting to know someone by his letters and personal papers. Unfortunately for Lady Ashton her husband is already dead when she starts to get to know him that way.
I found this one a very enjoyable story. I liked to know how Emily starts to admire her husband and is curious enough about his personal hobbies to start making inquiries, read the Iliad and studying ancient Greek. I particularly enjoyed the part about the British Museum and the gentlemen interest with classic sculpture that seemed to lead to multiple copies of the objects in exhibition. One strong point was how Alexander starts all chapters with an entry of Phillip's diary. It made it all the more poignant.
However this interest and the fact that she finds many original pieces in her country house lead her to believe Phillip may have been involved in illegal activities of exchanging the original pieces in the museum for copies. She decides to investigate further and develops a personal interest in the art.
At the same time Emily, a young and now very rich widow, learns to enjoy the freedom she now has and her behaviour sometimes shocks her mother whose biggest ambition seems to be for her daughter to get married again. Emily has one suitor almost from the beginning - Andrew Palmer - and also develops a friendship with the man who was her husband's best friend - Colin Hargreaves. They will both influence her in different ways. She also has strong female friendships with whom she will attempt some rebellious gestures, like drinking port with gentleman after dinner.
I liked the Victorian world portrayed here and the mix between mystery, historical fiction and romance.
In my review of Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn, I mentioned that just lately it has seemed as though I have been reading a lot of mysteries that seem to have similar settings and characters (i.e young women who become amateur sleuths (two of whom are recent widows) and all set in Victorian times). This was actually the first of those mysteries that I read, and yet strangely enough is the last review written. How odd!
Lady Emily Ashton had the misfortune to be married and then widowed very shortly thereafter. Her husband, Sir Philip appeared to have not formed any great emotional bond with his wife, and to be fair, the feeling was pretty much mutual as far as Lady Ashton was concerned. She barely knew her husband, other than the fact that he loved to go hunting in Africa, which is where he died. For her part, marriage meant a chance to escape from an overbearing society mother and having done her familial duty. As the daughter of an Earl, it was her responsibility to attract a suitably titled husband.
With her husband dead, Emily has been forced to basically withdraw from society whilst she undertakes her period of mourning. Inspired by the discovery of some journals belonging to her husband, instead of feeling constrained by her period of mourning, it is a period of freedom for her as she begins to learn some Greek, to know more about her dead husband and his interests, and as she begins to wonder if perhaps he had lived there would have been a chance to actually learn to love her husband.
It is this romantic hopelessness that causes Emily to become more interested in many of the beautiful antique objects that her husband surrounded himself with and for her to become a regular visitor to the British Museum. She stumbles onto a forgery plot, and soon finds herself with more excitement than she knows what to do with. As her period of mourning comes to an end and she prepares to reenter society as a widow of beauty and financial independence, Emily finds herself with not one but two admirers, both of whom were connected with her husband. It is however difficult to deal with suitors when one seems to be falling in love with your own dead husband.
This novel is a charming read about a woman who is trying to once more find her sense of self in the world of her time - a time when the social restrictions for a young woman were very strict - whilst also having to reevaluate the things that she knows about her own history. It was interesting to take a side trip or two to France where the rules were not quite so extreme.
It was also interesting to get a comparison to Emily's life by looking at the lives of her friends Ivy and Margaret, and to a lesser extent her French friend Cecile. Ivy is a newly married young woman, subject to the restrictions placed on her by her somewhat conservative husband (his shock at discovering his young wife had a taste for Emily's port collection was very amusing). Margaret is an American heiress, something of a blue stocking who doesn't really want to be part of society and therefore seen as eccentric, and then the freedom allowed to Cecile within French society.
The historical details about the life and times of a young Victorian, from customs to fashion to language were beautifully integrated into the storyline and yet Alexander still managed to provide us with a very intriguing mystery about a compelling female amateur sleuth.