Thursday, 1 September 2011

Book Review – The wings of Icarus by Laurence Alma-Tademe

This is a curious novel from the last years of nineteenth century by Laurence Alma-Tadema (1865–1940). She seems best remembered today for some fairly conventional poetry and while this short novel may not be the best ever written it is certainly worth reading.

The full title is the grandiose: THE WINGS OF ICARUS: BEING THE LIFE OF ONE EMILIA FLETCHER AS REVEALED BY HERSELF IN 1. Thirty-five letters, Written to Constance Norris between July 18th, 188-, and March 26th of the following year; 2. A Fragmentary Journal; 3. A Postscript. Gosh: such a long title for so short a work.

At first it seems a conventional love story. Though you wonder, at the start, who Emilia is in love with; at least when reading with a modern sensibility. Could it be the young, attractive and defiantly female Constance Norris herself? Could this be a lesbian novel that dare not state its intent? And did the author realise what she was writing? Alma-Tadema never married herself; but the little reading I have done from web based biographies reveal no other woman in her life. But who knows?

Then the novel's male love interest enters; dull convention restores itself. But only to a limited extent and the moral question arises of should a marriage be about love or duty? To say more would ruin the story.

The novels structure is unusual. Starting with a series of letters from Emilia to Constance. Incidentally these letters show an interesting use of the second person point of view and show this can have its uses. The novel then moves to a change of scene and a diary section. Finally there is a postscript which I first though was going to be a suicide note; but this turned out to be... well, you'll just have to find out for yourself. I think this structure is interesting and inventive.

There is a theme throughout the novel of the role of women within marriage. While this holds back from completely endorsing feminism you do get some notion of the swirl of ideas that resulted in the Suffragettes. Also there are doubts cast on the church and religion; again Alma-Tadema holds back from outright atheism but goes further than might be expected.

A novel that may not be top of your reading list but it's short and interesting enough to dig out when you have a little time to spare.

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