A Curious New Woman: Veronica Speedwell

It is June 1887, and London is preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, marking the 50th year of her reign. The once young and luminous Queen is now, however, a plump German widow, viewed increasingly by many as little more than a symbolic figurehead. In 1887, the British Empire is vast, covering nearly 25% of the world with colonies in North America, Ireland, Africa, India, and southeast Asia. Britain is faced, however, with growing political tension and unrest. The first Irish Home Rule Bill, which would allow for independent governing of Ireland, was presented and defeated in 1886, and in the year following its defeat, radical Irish nationalists were becoming increasingly violent. On June 20, 1887, the day of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration, a plot to blow up Westminster Abbey and assassinate the Queen, the Royal family, and members of Parliament was discovered. The Jubilee Plot, as it is now known, is a highly contested moment in British history, as evidence now points blame at both radical Irish nationalists and British government officials seeking to frame Irish nationalist leader Charles Parnell. It is at this moment of intrigue and suspense that Deanna Raybourn places her protagonist Veronica Speedwell at the opening of A Curious Beginning.

(Courtesy Penguin Random House)

We first meet Veronica standing over the gravesite of her recently departed aunt, her last known relative, “aware of a somewhat disconcerting feeling of euphoria rising within” her.1 With her aunt gone, Veronica is answerable only to herself, and she has plans – for traveling, for butterfly hunting, and for men. From the beginning – and this is a novel with many beginnings – Veronica reveals herself as an independent, clever, strong-willed, and uncompromising woman. At a time when convention dictated women devote themselves to marriage and children, Veronica paves her own way as a self-educated naturalist, scientist, and skilled lepidopterist, or butterfly hunter, traveling the world to collect rare species and selling them at a profit.

With her autodidactism and resourcefulness, Veronica is resolved to live independently. “I am quite determined to be mistress of my own fate,” she tells her prying neighbor Mrs. Clutterthorpe, “but I do sympathize with how strange it must sound to you. It is not your fault that you are entirely devoid of imagination. I blame your education.”2 Unlike the butterflies she collects, Veronica will not be caught and pinned down. Instead, she will travel the world chasing down rare butterflies – and men. “I made a thorough study of my own biology,” she proclaims, and “armed with the proper knowledge and precautions and a copy of Ovid’s highly instructive The Art of Love,” Veronica takes charge of her desires and sexual pleasures.3 In all these ways, Veronica is a modern New Woman character typical of late-Victorian fiction of the 1880s and 1890s.

“Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”

Before she can embark on her next round of world adventures, however, Veronica finds herself under attack from an unknown assailant and thrown into a world of intrigue, secret identities, and government conspiracies. But she is not alone. By her side is the Byronic figure of Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, or Stoker as he prefers.4 A former naval surgeon, Stoker is, like Veronica, an explorer, scientist, natural historian, and skilled taxidermist. His mysterious past is indicated by the jagged scar that traverses his face, sometimes necessitating the wearing of an eyepatch. The scar, we later learn, is a souvenir from a jaguar on a failed expedition to the Amazon, a past that Stoker refuses to speak of in detail. Tattooed and scarred, Stoker is roguish and rough, moody and brooding; he has a dark past, a broken heart, and very questionable motives. He is Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff rolled into one. Like Byron, Stoker is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”5

Plot spoilers lie ahead, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read this book unspoiled.

The mystery at the heart of A Curious Beginning is Veronica Speedwell’s true identity. After the death of her aunt (later revealed to be of no relation), Veronica finds herself at the center of an Irish nationalist plot to overthrow the British monarchy. With the help of Stoker, Veronica uncovers that she is the legitimate first-born child of the Prince of Wales, the first-born son of Queen Victoria and later King Edward VII, conceived in a secret marriage and therefore the real heir to the English throne. Born to the prince and an Irish Catholic mother, however, the truth of Veronica’s identity is enough to topple the British monarchy and send England and Ireland to war.6 Only through Veronica’s deft maneuvering and Stoker’s assistance does she manage to escape abduction by a group of Irish radicals and prevent the British government from silencing her permanently.

The Slow Burn

It is easy to fall in love with Stoker and Veronica, as individuals and as a couple, but their relationship is a slow burn. Their repartee is nothing short of lexical foreplay. Through it, a reader knows they secretly (and not so secretly) want to rip off each other’s clothes. They stay, however, within the bounds of Victorian propriety – at least until later in the series. In A Curious Beginning, they are platonic partners on the hunt to discover the truth of Veronica’s identity and why someone wants to eliminate her. This does not prevent Veronica, however, from fantasizing about Stoker: “I deliberately permitted my gaze to linger upon his bare torso, tracing a path from the anchor on one biceps to the serpent-twined staff upon the opposite forearm and everything in between. It was a delectable sight … I might not intend to use him for a plaything, but I could still appreciate looking through the toy-shop window.”7 Veronica does not censor her desire, but her one rule is that she conducts her affairs exclusively with non-English men while traveling abroad. Stoker is off limits – for now.

Raybourn’s use of first-person narration gives readers access to Veronica’s inner monologue. First-person narrators were popular with Victorian writers such as Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The influences of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a novel about an orphan who makes her way independently in the world, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a late-Victorian Gothic novel, are evident in Raybourn’s novel. Self-reliant and strong-willed Jane Eyre meets the brooding Mr. Rochester, a Byronic hero who bears many similarities to Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. Bram Stoker’s late-Victorian Gothic novel Dracula is also present in Raybourn’s work, not only in Revelstoke’s nickname, but in the New Woman character of Veronica. Dracula contains one of the best-known examples of a New Woman character, Lucy Westenra, who embodies the feminine sexual confidence possessed by Veronica. Even Veronica’s name highlights her identity as both a New Woman and a natural historian. The plant Veronica, also known as Speedwell, is a perennial with spikes of purple flowers, and Veronica’s eyes are described as uniquely violet in color. Veronica may also allude to the title character of H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909), a New Woman novel in which the main character studies biology. Raybourn has clearly done her research, and readers familiar with Victorian literature will discover many Easter eggs cleverly hidden throughout her work.

With its origins rooted firmly in Victorian literature, A Curious Beginning is a novel about origins and identity. As a New Woman, Veronica Speedwell takes control of her narrative and proves that identity is not the birthright of lineage or parentage, but the product of one’s own actions and choices. Veronica Speedwell is not the name and identity given to her at birth, but one constructed for her to protect her. Instead of rejecting it, Veronica steps fully into it and creates a life that is rich, colorful, and exciting. It is a curious beginning, but it is her own, and, with Stoker by her side, it is sure to be an adventure.

Notes

  1. Deanna Raybourn, A Curious Beginning (Berkley, 2016), 1. Return to text.
  2. Raybourn 8. Return to text.
  3. Raybourn 10. Return to text.
  4. The Byronic hero was first conceptualized in Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–1818). Characterized as solitary, moody, and psychologically complex, the Byronic hero embodies many traits not traditionally associated with conventional heroes. Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mr. Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) are popular examples of the Byronic hero archetype. Return to text.
  5. Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous assessment of the poet Lord Byron, recorded in her journal after meeting him in 1812. That same year, Lamb would become one of Byron’s lovers in a brief but tempestuous affair that scandalized English society. Return to text.
  6. The Prince of Wales (1841–1910), later King Edward VII (reign 1901–1910), was well known for his many extramarital affairs, including ones with Jennie Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Rumors of his illegitimate children have circulated ever since. Return to text.
  7. Raybourn 93. Return to text.

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