Julia Lee The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth
Oxford University Press 2013
November 1958. As the cabin door opened on a grey autumnal evening at Heathrow I had a Proustian moment – not that my ten-year-old self would have described it thus: in wafted November mists, with highlights of leaf mould, coal fires and, possibly, paraffin heating. I hadn’t experienced these scents since Coronation year, the intervening period and my previous early years having been spent in Hong Kong. These awakened memories — coming so soon after so long in a humid climate — were enough to disorientate me, a confusion that remained for quite some months afterwards.
I was thus able to appreciate the disorientation that young heroine Clemency Wrigglesworth felt after a lifetime in Victorian (or possibly Edwardian) India when she eventually fetched up in England, disembarking from a P&O liner in Southampton. At least I didn’t have the added disadvantages of being a recently-bereft eleven-year-old orphan with nothing to their name except a single ticket to England, inadequate clothing and some tantalising correspondence.
So many traditional girls’ names seem to have been based on virtues – Faith, Hope, Felicity or Verity, for example – but though Clemency at first meets with the kindness of strangers, her supposed surviving relatives and their cronies show surprisingly little clemency or mercy towards the little mite. At first Clemency comes across as mild and powerless. But believing herself to be blessed with ‘inner resources’ she makes determined efforts to improve her lot: after all, finding herself with virtually nothing, what has she got to lose by standing up for herself?
Clemency is at first dependent on adults to look after her on the voyage from Bombay and for accommodation when she arrives penniless in Southampton. Luckily they have her wellbeing at heart, from Mrs Potchard and her son Gulliver to Mrs Potchard’s sister Hetty Marvel and her family (which includes a spirited daughter called Whitby). Soon, however, adults appear who have rather more ulterior motives, the secretive Miss Lysander and the sinister Miss Clawe. Clemency’s journey takes her on to the ancestral home, Caredew near Frome in Somerset, though alarmingly she is not the welcomed lost relative. Will her new-found acquaintances want to rescue her? And will they contemplate rescue for purely pecuniary reasons or from the goodness of their hearts?
Julia Lee’s debut children’s novel is a triumph, well-paced, accomplished, full of humour and immensely readable. I have granddaughters of the target age who will love the sheer narrative drive and the likeability of the main protagonists. But there is also much to entertain and engage the adult. In part detective story, Victorian melodrama and Gothic mystery (in the vein of Northanger Abbey) The Mysterious Misadventures has distinct echoes of Dickens and Joan Aiken, among others. Lee keeps us as much in the dark as is necessary to ensure this is a real page-turner but skilfully manages not to hold up the action with long-winded explanations, leaving that to readers to work out to their own satisfaction from the clues liberally scattered throughout.
Lee also creates a vague sense of period with her apparently precise details of suburban terraces and the upstairs-downstairs arrangements of grand houses. Nevertheless, Wentworth Gardens in Southampton, despite the 19th-century feel of the story, is actually part of a modern development on the outskirts of the city. There is also no Caredew near Frome in Somerset, let alone a Great Hall whence Clemency’s family hails, though I can imagine it as a residence much like a neighbouring real-life Corsham Court or Tyntesfield House. But don’t imagine the Great Hall is akin to Downton Abbey: it’s much too down at heel for that. In fact I rather fancy Caredew (another form of the genuine surname Cardew) is related to the Welsh caer ddu, pronounced something like ‘care-thee’ and meaning Black Castle, for the Great Hall is somewhere where dark deeds are contemplated and almost carried out to the letter.
A short Afterword summarises the aftermath of the novel’s resolution but leaves the way open for some of the characters whom we have got to know and admire to at least re-appear in a sequel, something I anticipate with some degree of pleasure; I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Julia Lee and her created world. And I’m still full of respect for that resourceful eleven-year-old.