*I received a free copy of this book via NetGalley. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: ‘ON THE 15TH DAY OF DECEMBER IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1664, A GREAT LIGHT BLOOMED IN THE DARK SKY…’
Born on the night of a bad-luck comet, Ursula Flight has a difficult destiny written in the stars. Growing up with her family in the country, she is educated by a forward-thinking father who enables her to discover a love of reading, writing and astrology. Ursula dreams of becoming a famous playwright, but is devastated to learn she must instead fulfil her family’s expectations and marry. Trapped and lost, Ursula plots her escape – but her freedom will come at a price.
As Ursula’s dangerous desires play out, both on and off the stage, she’s flung into a giddy world of actors, aristocrats and artistic endeavours which will change her life irrevocably.
A gutsy coming-of-age story about a spirited young woman struggling to lead a creative life, this uplifting tale vividly evokes the glittering world of Restoration-era theatre. For anyone who has ever tried to succeed against the odds, The Illumination of Ursula Flight is an inspiring journey of love and loss, heartbreak and all-consuming passion. This is a debut pulsating with life for readers of Jessie Burton, Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry.
The comparison to Sarah Waters certainly rang true to me here, as there is a similar volatile mixture of historical societal mores with women who enjoy sex and rebel against those mores in a way that feels modern to the reader. Likewise I was put in mind of Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre series and considerably older sources such as Tess of the Durbevilles, Jane Eyre or even Moll Flanders.
You will note that all of these books feature a central, titular female character who suffers in a man’s world, but is resourceful, with a will to survive. Although this story does contain romance it is not, strictly speaking, a romance. It is the tale of the coming of age of Ursula as a woman in a world weighted to men; her trials, tribulations, loves and losses, but told with such wit and good humour that instead of being broken by her hardships the reader is uplifted and amused by how she tackles them.
Interspersed at regular intervals in the text are excerpts from Ursula’s journal, letters, and play manuscripts, and these give a clever, intimate insight into some key scenes from a more external point of view than the main narrative. Thus we get different voices, but always filtered through Ursula’s main perspective.
Which brings me to the main delight of the book: Ursula Flight. Ursula is superbly characterised. She is brave and outspoken, obedient and loving, witty and intelligent, oblivious and naive. She is human. And she is instantly both recognisable and likable. She continually surprised me with her reactions and her resilience, and could be considered a role model for how she prompted me to consider my own behaviours, priorities and privileges.
I absolutely loved this story and devoured it whole, then spent a further few days (and nights) reliving and re-enjoying the story and characters in my mental theatre. I sincerely recommend this to those fond of historical novels – about women – with a heart, a brain and a good sense of humour.
‘Come in and tarry awhile, for I am apt to grow bored, and you amuse me with your strange, fierce face, child.’
I went in as she had bidden and stood with my arms crossed behind my back.
‘What do you wish to be when you grow up, Ursula Flight?’ said she.
‘Why, a dashing adventurer, and if I cannot be that, a nun, and if I cannot be that, a mother to ten children, all of them twins and with bright golden hair.’
– Anna-Marie Crowhurst, The Illumination of Ursula Flight
The Illumination of Ursula Flight is out on Amazon right now!