On the surface, this tale is not at all related to Jane Austen, but I have read and enjoyed Liss’s stories in the past, and when my school librarian recommended this one to me, I wisely listened to him. As it turns out, Liss is clearly inspired at least in part by Austen in this captivating story. There are two sisters who are very close. Once their father dies, Martha marries an odious cousin, Mr. Buckles, to protect her younger sister, Lucy, though their father Mr. Derrick “detested Buckles as a simpering buffoon,” but then Mr. Buckles grants Lucy only a pittance each year and won’t permit her to live with them as he promised Martha he would. Why? Because Buckles’ “patroness, the Lady Harriet Dyer, whom he obey[s] in all things, does not think it wise” for Lucy to stay with Martha (50). When Lady Harriet tries to interfere in Lucy’s life, Lucy says, “I beg your pardon . . . You and I have been introduced, but we little know one another. I am not certain by what authority you direct me, or what has prompted you to make the long drive to do so” (90). Lady Harriet says she is concerned about the “scandal” Lucy will bring the family, later faulting Lucy’s “obstinacy” (91). Mr. Buckles and Lady Harriet live in Kent (92). Mr. Buckles eats with “determined fury,” and speaks with his mouth full of food (251). Lucy phrases her eventual rejection of a marriage proposal (proposed not to her but to her uncle about her) this way: “because she would not be happy” married to him, she cannot “imagine he could be” happy married to her (73). When Lucy’s own potential Mr. Collins temporarily accepts her rejection, he awkwardly comments that Lucy will see she “would not have suffered for being married to” him (210).
It’s Pride and Prejudice gone terribly wrong.
When we first meet Lucy Derrick, she wants “to feel as though her life were her own” (4). She, like Elizabeth, is “of slightly below-average stature, somewhat dark of complexion, and, if no striking beauty . . . certainly pretty” (5). She is now living in the home of an uncle. His serving woman is Mrs. Quince, who begins mean—her first words to Lucy disparage the young woman’s hair as being “almost negro in its coarseness” (she is later revealed to be anti-Semitic, too)—and reveals herself to be truly evil as we and Lucy get to know her better (6). Lucy’s father, who died three years ago, “had always been against” the mills run by people like the man to whom her uncle has contracted her in marriage. The mills, Lucy’s father believed, “strip their laborers of their humanity” (11). Lucy has good instincts—defending the grievances of the starving families she has seen, being quiet when speaking will actually prevent the achievement of her goals, and wanting to help her uncle’s servant, “a stooped old fellow called Ungston” when no one else thinks of it (13). She has, however, misunderstood several important parts of her own life, and in this adventure, she will learn more than magic alone.
Lucy, like Georgiana Darcy, was misled at age 16 to follow a rake (who later appears in interesting circumstances, of course, and seems to cause great fear in Mrs. Quince, which makes us want to like him), but was stopped by her father delivering the news of her sister Emily’s death. Her reputation is spared, but when her father dies shortly after finally bonding with her over books of magical philosophy, she is left in shabby care. Enter Lord Byron, warning Lucy not to marry mill-owner Mr. Olson, who is perfectly comfortable marrying Lucy by force, assisted by her quiet-loving, mean Uncle Lowell and Mrs. Quince, who once pretended to be Lucy’s friend and now slaps and scolds her, and even holds her responsible for Emily’s death. Lucy appears to be friendless until she meets Mary Crawford (yet another Jane Austen link), a beautiful mysterious healer who shows Lucy her own potential, just as Lord Byron provides a glimpse of what real attraction is and delivers the legitimate will, which left the girls with plenty of money, and which was replaced with a will leaving evil male relatives in charge of their fates. Mary, of “ethereal” beauty, has an “almost unnatural” paleness of coloring (93, 55). In a carriage, Lucy tries “not to stare at” Mary, who seems “to glow in the dark of the carriage” (94). Lucy, however, is just learning to process all the details coming at her, and even a more mature reader may miss on the first reading the ample clues Liss provides throughout the story as to what is really going on here.
Add magic, a Luddite rebellion, secret spells, William Blake, the prime minister, the Prince Regent, Beau Brummell, and the mysterious “gather the leaves in Newstead” advice Lucy keeps receiving (and which I figured out in ch 19, a full chapter before Lucy does, but then she’s only 20 and possibly distracted by being in the story), and you have yourself a riveting tale with likeable characters you don’t want to leave.
Things take a disturbing turn when a baby is taken, replaced, it seems, with a demon, and suddenly Lucy is unsure she can trust even her only friend. She must turn to a man she thinks her enemy—and use her powers with talismans to get people to do what she needs them to do. It’s all very exciting, as we, and she, collect information to assess whom we can trust and whom we cannot.
If this story is about learning whom to trust, Liss certainly makes that lesson difficult to master! Just when we think someone is trustworthy, we learn he or she isn’t, or is only to a certain extent. Like Elizabeth, our heroine must come to a point where she finally understands the depth of her own misjudgment, and though she can “hardly comprehend what this new information” means to her, at a certain point she can “no longer deny” the shift in her feelings for the real hero (346). We have hope for Byron, despite what we know about him, and what he offers Lucy, and that hope is seemingly confirmed when Martha sees his estate and comments to Lucy that “to be mistress of Newstead might be something” (161). (I found it almost strange what specific choices Liss makes with respect to Lord Byron here since he’s a guy on whom we have historical information.) Liss seems to lead us down the Darcy path, but more central here is Lucy getting control over her own life.
To do that, she must understand her own feelings as well as those of the people around her—people like Mrs. Emmett, who is fascinating from the beginning; though we are given multiple clues early on about who she is (even her name), that revelation still came as a shock to this reader, who should have seen it (and who knows the word in its original)! This book is worth a second read, if only for the sheer joy of spotting all the clues to secrets you missed before you knew what to look for. They’re everywhere in plain sight!