Dark secrets, hidden desires and forbidden encounters abound in this absorbing work of historical fiction, which blends racy romance with astute political observations.
The Pearl and the Carnelian, by Annabel Fielding, calls to mind the works of acclaimed historical novelist Sarah Waters as much as it does the upstairs-downstairs power games at play in Downton Abbey, it’s an engrossing tale set in the paranoid period between the two World Wars, and raises questions about the rise and attraction of fascism that feel startlingly relevant today.
The book is set in mid 1930s England, when Hester Blake, a bright young girl from an insalubrious Northern town, takes a job as lady’s maid to the enigmatic Lady Lucy Fitzmartin.
Despite doing their best to keep up appearances of grandeur, the Fitzmartins’ fortunes are fading and mistrust, resentment and barely-concealed contempt are as much a part of family life as grand society balls.
Hester is startled to find that, far from displaying the aloof attitude she had been expecting, the isolated Lucy is quick to confide in her, and the pair soon become much more to each other than merely Lady and her maid in waiting.
A budding writer who fills her time writing frothy society columns, Lucy harbours ambitions to achieve greater literary acclaim, and to live independently from the family she resents.
Embarking on a passionate affair with her mistress, Hester is drawn into a glitzy world of travel and high society, but knows that her true relationship with Lady Lucy must remain a closely-guarded secret.
Meanwhile, Hester’s clandestine meetings with her jazz-singing sister spark an irrational jealousy in Lucy, whose own white-skinned, delicate beauty appears to mask a dark determination.
With war clouds looming menacingly on the horizon, Lucy finds herself drawn into a political world of lies and subterfuge, and is readily convinced that, by forging bonds with the Germans, she is acting in her country’s best interests.
“After all, we all have an interest in not being killed”, as she bluntly puts it.
Issues of race, of ‘pure blood’ and of the reasoning that leads people along dubious political paths are key themes in this book – Hester’s olive skin and a family legend lead Lucy to dub her ‘My Moorish girl’, while her darker-skinned sister is beaten for her apparent ‘foreign’ status.
Deepening the plot, a clandestine relationship between a member of Lucy’s elite social circle and a black musician provides Lucy with ammunition to further her political ambitions, while Hester begins to resent her mistress’s increasingly inflammatory newspaper columns.
This is a cleverly-paced, intricately-plotted novel whose diverse range of female characters engage our sympathies even when we can’t condone their actions.
Lucy and Hester are particularly well-drawn, but side characters, such as Lucy’s sister Sophie, are also interesting enough to linger in the memory after the book has been put down.
The author has a clear interest in the history of inter-war Britain, marked by rapid and alarming social and political upheaval, and her writing provides a ‘girl’s eye view’ of a turbulent and relatively little known era.
And while this is very much a work of fiction, aspects of the book have taken influence from real-life events.
The politics of the time, with the chilling popularity of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and the early attempts at appeasement towards Nazi Germany, feel disconcertingly similar to present-day Britain where, post-Brexit, growing dissatisfaction with the establishment and xenophobic sentiments are sending seismic shocks through the fabric of society.
The Pearl and the Carnelian is a novel that succeeds on many levels: as a gay romance, a solid work of historical literary fiction told through a female perspective, and a thought-provoking piece of social commentary on a fascinating and dynamic time.
The Pearl and the Carnelian by Annabel Fielding is out now, priced £12.30 in paperback and £4.61 as an eBook.