Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review - Jane Sanderson's Ravenscliffe

Ravenscliffe by Jane Sanderson
Published by: Sphere
Publication Date: September 30th, 2012
Format: Paperback, 534 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition then one reviewed)

Eve Williams can hardly credit that she is living the life she is. Mere months before she was on her way to destitution as a widow with three children, but now she's engaged to be married to Daniel MacLeod, the head gardener at Netherwood, has a thriving business, and is moving into the substantially larger Ravenscliffe house on Netherwood Common. Much of these successes are thanks to the indomitable Anna, her best friend and co-conspirator. Though not every life is perfect. Eve's son Seth is rebelling against all the changes that he feels are disrespecting the memory of his father. To Eve's horror, after his twelfth birthday Seth signs on at the colliery that his father Arthur loved, but which killed him nonetheless. She wants Seth to realize that their new station in life has opened up vast opportunities for him as well. He doesn't have to live the life his father lived. Arthur would want a better life for his son, but Anna counsels Eve that Seth has to learn this for himself.

Though the biggest change in Eve's life is the return of her little brother Silas. She hasn't seen him since her wedding to Arthur when he was a scraggly youth and left saying that one day he would send Eve bananas. One day the bananas arrive and a few days later so does Silas. Silas has made an astounding success of his life as a shipping magnate specializing in the importing of bananas to England. He plans on expanding his shipping line out of Bristol and is working on making a luxury hotel in Kingston, Jamaica, and is looking to acquire a coal mine near Netherwood. Silas, unaware of the upheaval in Eve's life, is overly zealous at the success she too has made of her life and starts to encourage her to think bigger, to expand, to grab at every opportunity she is given. Much of these opportunities are connected with the family at Netherwood. After she helps them out of a tight spot when the King comes to visit, Lord Netherwood, following a reassessment of his life, is inclined to give Eve her company outright as a wedding present, relinquishing his share. Yet Lord Netherwood dies before he can commit this to paper. Silas's desire to force the Hoylands hand and get Eve what she deserves creates conflict in Netherwood, with Silas on one side, Anna and Amos on the other, and Eve stuck in the middle. Eve's life might be better, but it is far from perfect.

When the first book in a series is wonderful and perfect I can only imagine the pressure this puts on the author. Jane Sanderson had less time and more expectations with her followup to Netherwood. Thankfully Ravenscliffe exceeded all my expectations. With the expanding of this little microcosm of Edwardian England with new characters and new situations, Jane was able to stay true to the gritty and glamorous world of her first novel, yet infuse it with even more humor and humanity. Throwing us headlong into the upheaval at the great hall with the remodelling and redecorating for the King's arrival made me fall right into this book and not want to leave. The cook dropping dead hours before the first big dinner and having Eve step in was a situation of such absurdity combined with the feeling of her walking a tightrope, led to such suspense I didn't want to go to sleep. In that moment I had such a connection with Eve, I had so much invested, I felt that I was there with her. Jane just has this knack of creating characters that you connect with on so many levels, that you become invested in their lives and just need to know what happens next. Yet, Ravenscliffe isn't just a character piece with historical figures popping up, there are real and relevant issue that ring true to this day, giving the book a depth that most literature today lacks.

In the first book, Netherwood, we see Eve make a huge success out of the ruin of her life. Eve's restaurant becomes not only a place that locals visit, but a destination in Yorkshire for a day out. Her pies are even a hit with the King, who loves food reminiscent of his days in the nursery. Well maybe we should just say he loves food period, and he really loves Eve's puddings and pies. Yet with the arrival of Silas we see someone who has made a real success of his life. He is quite literally a millionaire. Eve and him had the same life, the same start in the world. On that day she married Arthur, Silas set out to make something of himself, and boy did he ever. When compared side by side, Eve's "huge" success in the first book is a pittance when compared to what her brother has achieved. This is the crux of what is a politically charged issue. The situation here is an interesting take on the dynamic of a woman's place in society. The little success Eve has carved out for herself is lauded because she is a woman and any success is amazing in this male dominated society. Yet what could Eve have done if she was male? Would Eve have been as or even more successful then her brother? I think she would have!

Lady Henrietta is the more vocal proponent of women's equality and suffrage in Ravenscliffe. Not only does she run the estate after her father's passing, but she institutes reforms in the collieries that will save lives, as well as becoming political and taking up the banner with the likes of Mrs. Pankhurst! The book shows quite clearly the injustices, but then it shows us that forward thinking women can help effect change. They are just as, if not more capable then the men in their lives, this is especially true of Henry and her inept brother Tobias. This time in history was the true beginning of women demanding the equality they deserved. While it would be another fourteen years from the events of this book till some women got the vote and a further ten years till it was more universal, it was a time of change and this book shows us, more then a dry history textbook, why it was needed and how the change was effected. Is equality for women such a hard concept to grasp even in this day and age? It is a basic human right.

Having the characters that we have known and loved as our friends incorporated into real history and real struggles makes not just their own stories come alive, but makes history come alive. Also, what did I say about historical figures popping up? Well, of course they do, but they aren't what the book is about, they are woven into the plot making it relevant to the story, not just a cameo. The introduction of Mrs. Pankhurst, Churchill, Keir Hardie, and the King, forward the story but also place it in the bigger picture. Jane Sanderson's story coupled with living breathing history makes her plea of suffrage and women's rights more urgent, more real. The only thing I would ask is that she drop the cliche of suffragists all having lesbian leanings... it's ok if it's character driven, just not ok if it's politically driven. Suffragists are all spectrums of women, don't pigeon hole them after writing a book that embraces the trail blazers and the pioneers of equality.


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