Katie Fforde has spent time at sea and running a narrow-boat hotel. She now lives in Stroud, where she writes romantic fiction, drawing on all of her experiences for the purpose. She is about to begin her thirteenth book - about Dutch barges. Katie's previous novels include Flora's Lot, Practically Perfect and Living Dangerously. Below, she writes about Victoria Glendinning's Electricity.
Katie Fforde on Electricity by Victoria Glendinning
I bought this book when it first came out, about ten years ago, but for some reason didn't read it. When it reappeared after a house move, I felt like I'd found a box of chocolates in February.
It is set in the late Victorian period and is one of those books that act like a time machine. Read it and you feel you have lived in those times. Our protagonist, Charlotte, describes her home life and instantly we feel the claustrophobia, smell the gas, are aware of how dim the lighting was. She describes how she, her mother and her maid perform some of their tasks in almost total darkness, by feel. When a dynamic young lodger comes into the house and tells them about electricity, one is aware how this invention is going to affect the world. Charlotte's father, a disgusting, rather pathetic creature, is opposed to anything new. Peter, the lodger, finds it almost impossible to convince the family that electricity isn't something likely to leak, that it is safer than gas. It is a totally new concept, the thought of which Charlotte embraces.
She could be a classic historical heroine. Better educated than her parents, by a charismatic teacher, she appears to have choices beyond those available to her mother. But although women were starting to go to university, they couldn't take degrees and were there on sufferance. Charlotte could never have convinced her parents to let her go, even if they could have afforded it, and it's not clear that she wished to go. While she might have become a teacher, she sees her only chance of employment as working in a shop. Not only does she not become a teacher, she doesn't fight for women's rights either. She marries the lodger.
This could seem a disappointing option for someone with her gifts, and yet it isn't. Peter is a talented young man. Charlotte doesn't marry him just because he's there, although he is the only young man she seems ever to have met; she marries him because they fall in love. He is her teacher as well as her lover and their relationship is touchingly erotic. There is a scene when, walking back from church, Peter asks Charlotte to remove her glove and they touch hands. I'm sad to report that nothing quite like that has ever happened to me and it makes you almost long for times when flesh touching flesh was rare and special.
The characterization is excellent. Charlotte's aunt comes to stay and we get a clear picture of how crowded the house was. Aunt Susannah has to share Charlotte's bedroom and her toilet is described in fascinating detail. Jane, the servant, is more than that, and yet never becomes a friend. We glimpse the details of her life, too, and realize that while life isn't going to be easy for Charlotte, her chances are infinitely greater than Jane's.
I think it is the details of daily life that most fascinate me about this book. The accumulation of Charlotte's trousseau, the sleeping arrangements, and the young couple's courtship, all are portrayed with care, but you never get the impression you are being given more information than would be sensible to give to a contemporary.
I also found it romantic. There is plenty of passion. Charlotte isn't the traditional Victorian bride who does not enjoy sex. She most certainly does. She also has an affair with her husband's boss. Although this should be shocking, it somehow feels right and inevitable, and Charlotte's thoughts on infidelity are surprisingly insightful.
There is plenty of tragedy, too, but it isn't mawkish for a second. The consequences of tragedy seem logical, if not always comfortable.
I was a little disappointed not to find out which choice Charlotte makes in the end, but perhaps it wasn't in her nature to tell us. She is a fascinating young woman, and Electricity is a fascinating novel, giving us a glimpse through the intervening years to the past.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]