Monday, April 9, 2012

Book review: The Imaginary Gentleman

Review: The Imaginary Gentleman
By Helen Halstead

Adelaide author Helen Halstead’s second novel, The Imaginary Gentleman (Random House 2006), follows her self-published sequel to Pride and Prejudice, A Private Performance.

This is mentioned in the author’s blurb at the end of the novel, and if I’d read that snippet of information first, I would have put this one down with haste. I can’t abide authors trying to don the mantle of Jane Austen and write sequels to her novels. I don’t care if it’s PD James with Death Comes to Pemberley, if you’re going to write fanfiction then publish it in online obscurity like everyone else.

With her second novel Halstead hasn’t re-cycled an Austen plot or beloved characters, this is an original story, and I give her points for that.

The story is set in 1806 and is about the rather serious and humourless Laura Morrison, who believes the handsome Mr Templeton she has become acquainted with, has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Laura’s family, never having met the brooding Adonis, fear she may have imagined his existence and start to doubt her sanity. Merry-widow sister Elspeth fears Laura’s eccentricities will deter her own social climbing efforts, and conspires with their wounded naval officer brother to entice her into marriage with their sweet but shy country cousin, a baronet who lives in the family’s ancestral pile. Laura beings to doubt her own memories, particularly as all around her deny her lover's existence and her sketchbook no longer contains the likeness she drew of him. 

Ostensibly a mystery about whether Laura is experiencing vivid delusions or if indeed her hero has been the victim of a nefarious plot, in reality this is a plodding family drama that never fulfils its potential and is unleavened by wit or vivacity.

Historical errors mar the narrative from the start, subtitled A Regency Intrigue, the novel takes place in 1806, five years before the Regency period began in 1811. I was prepared to be generous with the dates at first, as the term ‘Regency’ tends to be an historical descriptor to invoke the first few decades of the 19th century.

Unfortunately the second sentence provided another example all too quickly. “One moment her brown coat wrapped tightly around her tall figure, the next it flew out, flapping her white skirts around her ankles. Behind her, the ends of her scarf streamed out, orange flags in the wind.”

The winter garments we know as coats and scarves were not worn by upper class women of this period. If they wanted to be out in the elements they could wear heavy hooded cloaks, or, if they were fashion forward, a redingote or possibly a pelisse. The only way a brown coat and long orange scarf would be worn was if Tom Baker’s Dr Who had previously visited Lyme Regis. Now that would have been a story worth reading.

The characters are all rather tedious, Laura herself is such a dreary companion you don’t care whether she is delusional or not. “A wave of regret washed away Laura’s momentary serenity, as another seashore, quitted so recently, was vivid in her imagination. Where is he now? she thought.” Honestly she gives desperate spinsters a bad name.

The mysterious Mr Templeton, whether real or imaginary, is never present enough to make him believable, a comment that should not be read as a spoiler but as a criticism of how slightly drawn he is.

The only likeable character was the retiring and sweetly shambling Sir Richard, whose country mansion is the scene for part of the story. He is a man who loves his ancestral home and extends hospitality to the cousins, who I imagined tried his patience as much as they did mine. The real mystery is why the social climbing Elspeth didn’t set her cap at him herself, earning a title she could take to the London ton and leave a complacent husband alone on his acres. Instead much of the novel sees Elspeth and brother Edward trying to convince Laura that marriage to Sir Richard will cure her of all ills. In Edward’s defence, he at least is pursuing this out of genuine affection for the tedious heroine.

The novel also suffers from too many points of view. In the course of one scene the reader can jump from the perspectives of two or three characters, a technique that doesn’t advance understand of the narrative or sympathy for its players.

The story had the potential to explore the few choices available to women in the 19thcentury, and how society treated those that failed to secure a marriage as a career. Instead it offered an interlude spent with people whose lives held little interest.

If you’re craving a Regency story stick to the acknowledged leaders of society: Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. These ladies will never fail to entertain you.

This has been written as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.

Other reviews:
Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerrilla Knitters Institute The Women in Black


  1. A shame you didn't enjoy it, Thank you for sharing your review

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  2. Hi Heather

    Thanks for your participation in this year's AWW challenge.

    Have you seen the AWW feedback survey? (I just found you on Twitter, so I don't know if you saw it there.)

    It's to give feedback to Bookseller and Publisher on the impact of writing by Australian women this year.

    It's very quick - 10 questions, mostly checkboxes, takes about 2 minutes. Your response would be much appreciated.


  3. Hi Elizabeth thanks for coming by. Thanks for letting me know about the feedback survey, I've completed and submitted it.

    My other reviews for the challenge are now linked into this review, The Women in Black is my all time favourite Australian novel.

    I'm looking forward to the 2013 challenge!