LOUISA ELLIOTT by Ann Victoria Roberts, 

Contemporary Books $19.95

Honorable historical fiction

What do The Red and the Black, A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, August 1914, and Precious Bane have in common? Certainly all might qualify as literary classics. But beyond that, all were written by authors about a period of history not their own. All are, therefore, historical fiction.

Perhaps because of the highly provocative historical romances that glut the shelves of bookstores, historical fiction has fallen into disrepute. Call any novel historical and it will very likely be met with derision. The effect is to deny readers some fine works by contemporary authors.

Louisa Elliott, by Ann Victoria Roberts, is a historical novel. I say that with the greatest respect both for the author, and for this, her first novel. Set in Britain, it opens quietly. Its heroine and her cousin trudge homeward through a dense snowfall, their conversation and their concerns, like the city of York about them, is muted and blurred by the heavy snow. The year is 1892 and an influenza epidemic has laid low Louisa’s mother and a guest at her mother’s small hotel.

In an age that held firmly to visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, Louisa has trod a difficult road, for she and her sisters are illegitimate. Vivid memories of her stigmatized youth cause her to seek stability in the respectable vocation of governess.

The affection and joy she lavishes upon her charges attract the attention of a cavalry officer, Robert Duncannon, and Louisa is equally drawn to him. But Duncannon is married, and his wife is hopelessly insane.

One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in the substantiality of its characters. They are fully human, fully shaped, each an individual combination of wisdom and folly. We cheer them on, we flinch for them, we want only the best for them.

Roberts’s descriptions are nothing less than a walking tour through Victorian York. This is the city a Dickens or Hardy would have known it – from the hearthside details to the mood of the country – and it is full of wonder.

Louisa Elliott is not a fairy-tale romance though; instead, the author has charted Louisa’s course through the shoals of convention and morality, through sin and guilt, to forgiveness and redemption. Unflinchingly, she tackles those issues which have made a moral wasteland of our own age. She powerfully conveys the essence of human vicissitude, exploring the contrast of great passion with trustworthiness and faithfulness. She writes clearly and well.

(Reviewed by Melissa Pressley)