Tuesday, April 10, 2012

By the King's Design

 I enjoyed Christine Trent's first two novels; in her latest book By the King's Design she surpasses herself once again. Not only are we treated to an in-depth description of how ordinary people lived in Regency England, as well as a remarkable portrait of the stormy politics of the time, but the author leads us in an exploration of addiction, and the various forms it can take. The new novel is a provocative blend of thorough research with good story-telling.

Our heroine, Annabelle Stirling, has inherited the draper's trade from her father; she runs her shop with great efficiency as well as profitable innovation, including a mechanical loom which weaves cloth on the premises. Her success rouses the anger of the local Luddites, who are against machinery in the cloth industry, fearing it will lead to the loss of many jobs. One night they raid her draper shop and begin to destroy the inventory. Belle discovers that the Luddite vandals are led by her fiancé and her own brother, Wesley. Disillusioned, Belle breaks off her engagement, closes her shop and moves her business from Yorkshire to London. Within months she finds success, due to the patronage of the Prince of Wales, who hires her to help decorate his Pavilion in Brighton. However, her financial independence comes at a heavy personal price.

Belle has a rather co-dependent relationship with her brother Wesley, in that in spite of his attempt to ruin her she gives him a job in her shop, although she has enough common sense to refrain from giving him any authority. Wesley resents working for his younger sister, and escapes from his dissatisfaction by falling into bad habits, including the smoking of opium. The gradual shattering of his personality through drug abuse is examined in heartrending detail.

A major character in the novel is the flamboyant Prince of Wales, who becomes George IV. While possessing  humor and charm which make him a likable fellow, George has many vices which he assiduously cultivates in direct rebellion to his staid and devout father. With two wives, many debts and a string of mistresses, George gives little thought to the scandal he gives to his people. George would now be considered a sex addict, since no one woman is able to satisfy his needs. Annabelle must eventually decide whether working for such a man is truly worth it.

As Belle climbs the ladder of prosperity, she is befriended by a young cabinetmaker named Putnam Boyce. Put tries to court her but Belle is so attached to the satisfaction of running her own business she deliberately shuts her heart to any possibility of marriage or romance. Belle seeks emotional refuge in her career and so the work she loves becomes a sort of addiction in itself, since she puts it before the people in her life. She discovers that the more she tries to shield herself from pain, the more it finds her.

In the meantime, there are those who would try to bring Revolution to England in imitation of the French debacle. This aspect of the novel I found extremely educational, since I have been unfamiliar with the politics of the time. As in her other novels, Christine Trent lavishes great attention on the details of living and working which  make it a fascinating read for anyone who loves the history of everyday life.

(*NOTE: By the King's Design was sent to me by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.)


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