Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jensen

Sophia Williams is not your typical 18th century young lady. She loves to read the poetry and plays of Alexander Pope and Shakespeare. She is a crack shot with a pistol, can ride a horse, and she doesn't intend to ever marry.

Sophia and her cousin Jack have been very much on their own, after Sophia's father left four years earlier for Jamaica in the West Indies, where he owns a plantation. When he unexpectedly returns home, bringing Sophia's Aunt Amelia with him, he finds Sophia is not the lady he expected. His steward has been fired by Sophia for stealing from the estate, as well as her governess who was to teach and chaperone her. Instead he finds her learning Latin, Greek and mathematics, all subjects that to her father's thinking won't be of use to her as a married woman. As a lady of birth and breeding he expects her to be accomplished in things that matter; embroidery, painting and dancing.

Sophia's father promptly ships Jack off to the cavalry and orders Sophia's horse sold and her poetry and plays burned. Because he wants to marry her off and considers her reputation ruined, and since the London season is over, Sophia's father decides to rent a house in "the Bath"; Bath England, famous for its healing waters.

Sophia decides to get revenge upon her father, vowing he will not break her and what ensues is a titanic battle of wills. When she does anything that he disapproves of, her father either starves or beats her. When she is not allowed to eat at an inn on their way to the Bath, she is given food by a servant named Bill Smith. In exchange for this favour, Sophia promises to find out about his sister, Jenny who has gone to the Bath to find work. In a remarkable conincidence, their coach is robbed just before they arrive in the Bath by no less then Jenny Smith and an accomplice.

Once settled in the Bath, Sophia works hard to annoy her father and to refuse any of his requests. However, she is forced to have new gowns made for her and to attend social events in the town. On her first walk through the town, she meets up with Jenny who tells her that she does not want her brother knowing what she does for a living - robbing coaches.

At her first dance at the upper ballroom at Guildhall, Sophia tries to make everyone dislike her so that no one will be interested in marrying her. She succeeds admirably by insulting the men who dance with her. However, one man, Mr. Charleton, goes out of his way to dance with Sophia and to help her.

After a beating by her father for her intolerable behaviour at Guildhall, Sophia decides that she will get revenge upon him by robbing him when he leaves to go to London. After a successful robbery, Sophia senses that Mr. Charleton suspects what she has done.

Even though Mr. Charleton treats her kindly and with great deference, Sophia feels that he has an ulterior motive for befriending her. She soon discovers that he believes she is involved in a plot to overthrow the King. She furthers this view when she agrees to help Jenny rob someone of important papers. That person turns out to be Mr. Charleton, whom she is developing some feelings towards.

In the meantime, her father, having fallen into debt towards the unscrupulous, lecherous Mr. Mould, decides that she will marry Mould as a means of settling his debts. Finding herself under pressure from both her father to marry and Mr. Charleton who suspects her of treason, Sophia decides she must try to escape before she is either trapped in a loveless marriage or caught and sent to the gallows.

Set in 1715 around the historical event of the failed rebellion of (Catholic)Stuart supporters to regain the British throne, The Girl in the Mask was a surprisingly entertaining read. Jensen creates a character with whom a reader can sympathize despite her willful, rebellious nature. Her situation is desperate and unfair and we can't help but root for her. Some of the situations are bit contrived, for example, when Sophia happens to have her coach robbed by Jenny Smith, whom she has just promised to be on the look out for. The author also resolves the conflict and ties up all the loose ends quickly and neatly, but in a way that is too convenient. Nevertheless, fans of historical fiction will enjoy this novel, with its spirited heroine and touch of romance.

The Girl in the Mask is almost a cross between Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel and Georgette Heyer's regency romance novels. Older teens enjoying this novel are recommended to try both of these author's books.
I didn't much like the cover of the novel which is a reference to the masquerade ball near the end of the novel. However, teens may find it appealing.
I almost feel like there could be a sequel to this novel. What happens to Mr. Charleton, Jenny and Sophia? Do Jack and Sophia, childhood friends, ever meet again?

Book Details:
The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jensen
Oxford University Press
311 pp.

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