Friday, January 25, 2013

Lady of Milkweed Manor

The Lady of Milkweed Manor was Julie Klassen's first novel and, in my opinion, it is her best. The Lady of Milkweed Manor tells the story of four people whose lives and families are forever entwined.

The novel opens with twenty year old Charlotte Lamb on her way to a lying-in home in London. She is being sent away by her father, the Reverend Mr. Gareth Lamb, the vicar of the Parish church of Doddington. Rev. Lamb is a strict, legalistic Anglican minister who is scandalized by his daughter's out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Charlotte is being sent away in the hopes of limiting the damage done to her family, especially her older sister, Beatrice who is attempting to secure a marriage proposal.

So Charlotte is sent to Manor Home, also known as Milkweed Manor, which aims to reform women of poor character. Initially, we don't know who is responsible for Charlotte's situation, but we gradually learn about what happened through flashbacks and we also learn about Charlotte's life prior to coming to Manor House.

Her mother, sickly after Charlotte's birth, never fully recovered and died when Charlotte was seventeen. Charlotte's mother was attended by Dr. Webb and his assistant, Mr. Daniel Taylor, who is now Dr. Taylor. Daniel asked Charlotte's father for permission to marry her, but was turned down because his social status was lower than that of her family. To improve his position in society, Daniel studied medicine, and he now works at Manor House.

Her older sister, Beatrice, has her hopes of securing William Bentley, a young suitor who frequently comes to the vicarage. Charlotte, on the other hand, was only interested in Charles Harris, an older uncle who was always affectionate towards her. However, when Charles's estate home burns, Charlotte seeks to comfort him, but when things go too far she finds herself "ruined".

Shortly afterwards, Charlotte's cousin, Katherine, announces her engagement to Charles. Charlotte knows she in deep trouble because her only recourse to being restored - marrying Charles Harris, now no longer exists. When she meets Charles, he tells her that he must make the choice between saving his family's estate by marrying wealth or being honourable and marrying her. This choice sets in motion a entire chain of events that forever change their lives and those closest to them.

And so at Manor House, Daniel, who is shocked to see Charlotte living there, agrees to undertake her care, treating her without prejudice and very kindly. Charlotte, meanwhile discovers Dr. Taylor's secret:  that he is now married to a French woman, Lizette, who is pregnant and suffering from "puerperal insanity" a type of mental illness brought on during pregnancy or after childbirth.

Charlotte gives birth to a beautiful little boy, whom she names Edmund. Meanwhile, Charles wife, Katherine, also gives birth to a baby boy several days later, but their child does not survive, despite being taken to the the Manor Home for care. Charles is now desperate because Katherine has vowed never to have another child if this one does not live. In an ironic twist this means that had Charles done the right thing, Charlotte's baby would be Charles legitimate heir to his estate. Desperate to save Katherine's sanity and his own estate, Charles Harris begs Daniel Taylor to allow him to talk to Charlotte and make her an offer she can't refuse.

The Lady of Milkweed Manor is a very good novel, engaging the reader from beginning to end with a fascinating look into late 19th century English society, with its strict rules regarding behaviour. Klassen adds to this interest with the development of several minor but interesting storylines. There are lots of fascinating details about what it was like giving birth in this era.

All of the characters are very well drawn, each showing different facets. Klassen effectively shows how Charlotte learns from her mistake and matures enough to recognize the fatal flaw in Charles Harris. Her journey is a difficult one, fraught with terrible choices that are the source of tension in the novel.  Plain but noble and caring Daniel Taylor is a contrast to the fashionable Charles Harris and Charlotte's severe, unbending father.

There are plenty of themes in the story, including the imagery of unwed mothers being like the dreaded milkweed, a poisonous plant that gardeners dislike and struggle to control. However, Dr. Taylor uses the milkweed for medicinal purposes, explaining that the plant can be used to help others, that it has redeeming qualities. Similarly, he encourages the young women at the manor home to help others by being wet nurses and tending to the abandoned babies.

Klassen draws somewhat upon Jane Eyre, with the inclusion of the doctor's wife who is insane and locked away in an upper room at Manor House. In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester, the brooding master of Thornfield Hall, hides his insane wife away in an upper room. And similar to Jane 's growth from innocent girlhood to woman, Charlotte also follows a similar path,

Lady of Milkweed Manor is a well written novel that will appeal to older teens and adults.

Book Details:
Lady of Milkweed Manor by Julie Klassen
Bloomington, Minnesota: BethanyHouse Publishers
410 pp.

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