A Proper Education for Girls
By Elaine Dirollo
(Crown, Hardcover, 9780307408341, 368pp.)
Publication Date: April 14, 2009
List Price: $25.00*
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Not since the Brontës have we seen the likes of the Talbot sisters, plucky peach growers with a peculiar upbringing and a flair for subversion. Set in England and India in the mutinous year of 1857, A Proper Education for Girls tells the story of Alice and Lilian Talbot, twins separated for the first time in their lives by their martinet father. After an affair comes to a tragic end, Lilian is banished from the Talbot mansion and married off to a sickly missionary in India. Unwilling to play the part of the demure missionary wife, beautiful, tomboyish Lilian quickly takes advantage of her husband’s hypochondria and her newfound freedom as a British expatriate, tramping off into the jungle to paint pictures of the indigenous flora and secretly learning the language and customs of her adopted homeland.
Meanwhile, the plain but sharp-witted Alice remains on her father’s isolated estate, serving as curator to his strange and vast Collection under the watchful eye of the malevolent Dr. Cattermole. The Collection, which has taken over every inch of the rambling estate, is the essence of Victorian England—antiquated and ingen- ious, austere and excessive. Twelve perfectly synchronized grandfather clocks stand at attention at the bottom of a staircase. Botanical specimens have overrun the conservatory, turning the room into a tropical greenhouse. Forgotten houseguests roam amid fossilized sea creatures, display cases of Greek pottery, and mechanical contraptions. A peach tree, inherited from their mother and planted in a wheelbarrow for portability, is a constant reminder of Lilian’s absence.
Though Mr. Talbot has cut off all communication between the sisters, a cryptic letter from Lilian manages to slip through, and hidden in the envelope is a puzzling photograph of a tiger hunt. Alice sets about cracking the code in the letter, finding an unlikely ally in Mr. Blake, the photographer hired to document the Collection. While Mr. Talbot is absorbed in the eccentric but seemingly benign Society for the Propagation of Useful and Interesting Knowledge, Alice plots her escape from both her oppressive father and Dr. Cattermole’s unspeakable plans for her future.
Intrigue is rife in India as well, where Lilian continues to defy convention. Playing her many admirers off one another, she quietly works toward the goal of reuniting with her sister. But the violent onset of the Indian rebellion against British rule threatens to derail her plans. And back at the Talbot estate, the Society’s experiments are taking a menacing turn. Will the sisters' resourcefulness and profound devotion to each other be enough to save them? Capturing the Victorian era in all of its whimsy and horror, A Proper Education for Girls is a superb debut novel about the power of sisterhood.
ELAINE DIROLLO was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, and now lives in Edinburgh, where she is a lecturer at Napier University. She holds a Ph.D. in the social history of medicine from Edinburgh University. A Proper Education for Girls is her first novel.
“A Proper Education for Girls is an inspired fantasy, a light-hearted adventure that nevertheless addresses such serious topics as Victorian hypocrisy, sexual repression, and the second-class status of women.”
—The Boston Globe
“Alice and Lilian are fabulous, quirky characters, gifted with an engrossing plot. Here’s hoping we will meet them again. A rollicking good time that does not take itself too seriously.”
“DiRollo’s delightfully original debut simultaneously mocks and colorfully depicts British imperialism and the Victorians’ obsessive pursuit of scientific progress.”
“Very enjoyable, funny and horrific by turns and with well-drawn, memorable characters. Very much recommended.”
—Historical Novels Review
“Alice and Lilian Talbot are my new Victorian heroines.”
—Curled Up With a Good Book.com
“A delightful book. I loved diRollo’s supple and spare prose, the marvelous characters (the aunts were small jewels) and that she looked at Victorian eccentricities through a jeweler’s loupe rather than painting a more traditional wide angle Dickensian canvas. “
—Beverly Swerling, author of City of God
"Sexual politics are never far from the surface of Elaine diRollo's A Proper Education For Girls, but we're having such a rollicking good time it would be a shame to take it all too seriously. Even as we succumb to the voluptuous atmosphere and simmering eroticism of her language, DiRollo's suspenseful pacing virtually catapults us from one chapter to the next. An effortless and immensely satisfying read that begins its real work on you after you put it down.”
—Janice Graham, New York Times bestselling author of The Tailor's Daughter
“Elaine diRollo's delightful debut novel debunks Victorian morality with the ease and authority of A.S. Byatt and the naughty irony of Margaret Atwood. The plucky Talbot sisters, raised in a hothouse, roots bound and pruned by brutes, are my new heroines. Their triumph over the forces of repression will make the reader cheer.”
—Valerie Martin, author of Property and Trespass
“A book that turns a searchlight on Victorian double standards. Rich in detail, full of sensational surprises from flying machines to tiger hunts, this is a novel to shock and delight. A Thelma and Louise for the mid-nineteenth century.”
—Katharine McMahon, author of The Rose of Sebastopol and The Alchemist’s Daughter
“Wonderful…a spirited and energetic debut, witty and inventive and often just downright addictive.”
“This is one of the most enjoyable, intelligent and genuinely humorous books I've read this year…Elaine diRollo's debut should be read, and it should be rewarded, too.”