A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo

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A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Becky Hazlett
Reviewed by Becky Hazlett
Summary: An entertaining, non-taxing, Victorian romp following the exploits of two outspoken and intelligent sisters in England and India. It is just the thing if you're after a light-hearted and very funny page-turner.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099513469

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A Proper Education for Girls is a knowing satire about Victorian attitudes towards women, focusing on the enduring bond between twin sisters, Alice and Lillian Talbot. The novel opens with a description of their father, a man with a very Victorian belief in Progress and a penchant for scientific experiment. He is obsessively devoted to his indiscriminate collection of 'interesting and useful artefacts' which has gradually subsumed their entire house. Mr. Talbot had expected his daughters to equal his enthusiasm and devote their entire lives to The Collection with only a bunch of old ladies (their aunts) for company, but, it didn't quite work out that way.

It transpires that the beautiful Lillian committed what was regarded by the Victorians as a cardinal sin, so her father, in order to get rid of her quickly, married her off to a missionary bound for India. Alice and Lillian are thereby separated and the narrative alternates, every three chapters or so, between each sister's perspective. It becomes immediately apparent that Lillian's boring, and traditional husband is no match for a woman of spirit like herself. The moment they arrive in India he becomes ill and moans continuously about the climate and the natives. Alice, on the other hand, seems destined for a life of spinsterhood as the sole curator of her father's museum. The novel's beginning is unremarkable - both situations are dreary and seemingly afford little opportunity for excitement or change - but both sisters refuse to accept the submissive female stereotype and gradually take control of their own lives and start to negotiate their own terms.

Lillian participates in the acceptable feminine pastime of flower painting but tramps out into the Indian country side, wearing her husband's trousers and armed with a rifle, in order to paint the flowers in their natural habitat. Unlike the other European ladies of the camp, Lillian embraces her new home instead of trying to recreate England in India. Meanwhile, Alice's unfeminine assertiveness whilst assisting Mr. Blake who has been employed to photograph The Collection, is a source of increasing concern to her father.

The pace quickens and the suspense builds simultaneously in each separate storyline and as the book races towards a climax and it becomes very compelling and exciting. Education is also quite farcical; characters indulge in cross-dressing, find themselves in compromising positions and run around avoiding each other. The book contains some hilarious scenarios particularly those satirising the speech and behaviour of the men and women of the British Raj, an example being the Tiger hunting expedition.

If one is allowed to criticise a farce for not being serious enough, the trouble with Education for me personally is that I don't quite believe it. It lacks realism and reads almost like a fairytale. It's a light-hearted rendering of the period with every cliché of the Victorians thrown in. The peripheral characters are either indistinguishable (the aunts and members of the European camp in India) or caricatures (Mr. Talbot or his manservant, Sluce). I don't think this novel really offers us anything new; the submissive female stereotype of that era has been subverted so often that the assertive female is in some ways the new stereotype. There is even a scene lifted straight out of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, only the names have been changed. Di Rollo does acknowledge her homage to Waugh at the back of her novel, but, so what. Education does however, work very well on an emotive level; there are several instances that are genuinely unexpected and even shocking.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For some genuine Victorian satire, you might be interested in The World of Vanity Fair - Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor).

Buy A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo at Amazon.co.uk

Buy A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo at Amazon.com.


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