Melanie Kerr’s latest novel is a comfort read, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple read.
Mary Green could be described as a light Regency romance whose heroine must find herself before she finds true love. Or, it could be described as a work of historical fiction in the style of Jane Austen, addressing gender, class, and other social issues of the day.
Mary Green was adopted from an orphanage by the wealthy Markhams, who promptly die, leaving her in the care of Mrs. Markham’s brother, the widower Sir Richard Hargreaves. Sir Richard means well, but spends most of his time in West Indies, leaving his two daughters and young Mary in the care of his spinster sister-in-law Miss Preston. Miss Preston dotes on the daughters but treats Mary like a servant, reminding her daily that she has no money or family of her own. The Misses Hargreaves don’t even bother to use her given name, calling her “Polly.”
Despite her mistreatment, Mary is mostly happy. Her world is thrown into confusion on her 21 birthday, when she finds herself the sole beneficiary of the Markham’s substantial estate. Incensed that the Hargreaves made her think she was living on charity when in fact she is an heiress, Mary makes a rash decision. She leaves the Hargreaves country estate and installs herself in the Markham’s London house, on her own.
This sounds like a happy ending, but the story is just beginning. Mary is rich, but has no family, no connections, and no husband—a very vulnerable position for a young woman in Regency England. And she still doesn’t know who she is. The balance of the novel sees Mary grapple with her past and her future: who are her parents and where is she from? Who will she marry and where will she end up?
Comfort-seeking readers will delight in Mary’s adventures through London society, as she tracks down her real parents and makes her way through a pack of eligible bachelors, including a rector with a bird watching fetish, a society dandy who’s a bit of a bore, and the three brothers Ingles: one destined to be a Lord, one set on Christianizing the masses in Africa, and one an artistic dilettante.
No less comforting to the astute reader are the numerous references to classic English women’s writing. Melanie Kerr’s first novel was a Pride and Prejudice prequel called Follies Past, and there are many parallels between Mary Green and Austen’s novels, beyond the setting and style. Mary’s backstory draws on Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, also taken in by wealthy relatives and mistreated. Mary’s propensity for falling in and out of love could be modelled on Emma Woodhouse’s half-baked romance with Frank Churchill. Kerr is a local authority on all things Austen, organizing events such as Regency balls, and recently, a marathon viewing of the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at Fort Edmonton Park.
Looking beyond Austen, Mary’s early neglect and mistreatment is also reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and her rags-to-riches London society debut echoes Frances Burney’s Cecilia, a novel of the Georgian era known to have influenced Austen’s work. (Kerr’s publisher, Edmonton’s own Stonehouse Publishing, will release an edition of Burney’s first novel this year.)
Less comforting is the treatment of Regency-era social issues and attitudes, which can be tricky for modern writers to depict faithfully. The missionary work of the middle Ingles brother William exposes the problematic attitudes that drove European colonization in Africa, which may make readers cringe. Kerr set out to make this uncomfortable, saying that “several of the characters have some kind of grand ambition that they felt was morally imperative. One of them was William and his colonial or proselytizing aspirations. This is juxtaposed with the real warmth of heart that Mary shows to her fellow human beings and their real beneficial work that she chooses to do out of compassion.”
That warmth of heart makes Mary an appealing heroine, and it’s comforting to modern sensibilities that Mary is given the space to have talents and concerns of her own, beyond her search for a husband. A subplot involving a stand-in for English romantic painter John Constable shows off Mary’s artistic side, and a chance encounter with a poor family sparks her philanthropic ambitions.
Kerr didn’t make Mary Green a Regency-era trailblazer—painting and charity are perfectly conventional pursuits for a lady. That’s what’s magical about the book. Although the novel is a conventional historical romance in many ways, Kerr also leaves the reader guessing until the end, and creates a fully-realized heroine with the resources and integrity to be happy with or without her suitor of choice.
But you’ll still barrel through the novel, eager to discover how the heroine finds her happiness.
By Melanie Kerr