by Sarah Henstra
For release May, 2015
Fitting in is a dilemma for young people the world over and throughout time, whether it be contemporary Canada or 1870s London. But the constraints of Victorian England were highly embedded in the strict social hierarchy of the day. Young women of standing, such as seventeen-year-old Miss Leonora Somerville, niece of the Countess of Hastings, were expected to make suitable marriages, partaking in endless social engagements, while the men were to engage themselves with business and politics. But, as lovely as she is, Leonora’s stammering and learned ability to mimic others–she has heard them call her Mad Miss Mimic–have put her at a great social disadvantage, and one which her older sister Christabel, wife of Dr. Daniel Dewhurst and mother of two, is determined to hide–afterall, “Madness will take the shine off gold” (pg. 21)–in order to procure an engagement for Leonora and finally move her out of Hastings House.
Currently, Christabel’s efforts are focused on the wealthy merchant seaman Mr. Thornfax, a new business partner of Daniel’s and the son of the Lord Rosbury. And all Leonora has to do it not speak. But when Mr. Thornfax asks her questions directly, she has no choice but to answer, unconsciously mimicking her sister.
“Mimic had leapt in to rescue me from trouble. She’d allowed me to adopt my sister’s voice and manners wholesale, so that I could say whatever Christabel would say–or whatever I might imagine her to say–in precisely the way Christabel would have said it.” (pg. 30)Fortunately, her cousin Archie Maverty, a reporter, who knows of her mimicry, rescues her, though more for her benefit than for Thornfax whom he regards as suspicious. But it is Daniel’s work at his surgery, where a young man named Tom Rampling assists him, that makes Leonora suspicious, especially after a young servant girl, Hattie, dies.
Because of her household interactions with Hattie, and her curiosity about Hattie’s involvement with Daniel and Mr. Thornfax, Leonora develops a rapport with the clever and creative Tom, to whom she is drawn because of his compassion for others and his acceptance of her mimicry. However, Leonora is still being courted by Thornfax, London is still being held hostage by the dangerous Black Glove and his fatal explosions, and Leonora is troubled with doubts about Tom’s honesty, Christabel’s frequent agitation, and Daniel and Thornfax’s business. That very simple but necessary betrothal begins to be the least of Leonora’s worries soon enough.
At its heart, Mad Miss Mimic is a Victorian mystery, all the more perplexing because of the information that the characters choose to share of themselves. Yes, the Black Glove chooses to remain concealed, but everyone else–Tom, Thornfax, Christabel, Daniel– including our narrator herself also chose what secrets and fears and guilt they share and which they do not. The reluctance of all to speak with their own voices–save perhaps their Aunt Emma, but I suspect age and privilege have helped beget that courage–creates the mystery of Mad Miss Mimic. And, with Sarah Henstra’s brilliant characterizations and historical setting, the mystery and an unexpected and sweet romance at its core, Mad Miss Mimic reveals the need for voices to be given the freedom for expression if life is to be worth living.
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Special post tomorrow: Q & A with author Sarah Henstra about her first novel, Mad Miss Mimic