Allen & Unwin | 2018 (3 May) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book
In December 1664 Ursula Flight was born under inauspicious circumstances – a comet blazing a trail across the sky. Surely an ill omen. But not to Ursula. Although born to a gentry family with all of the material care that she needs, she is emotionally not supported. But her father did teach her something: a curiosity about the world and the stars above it and, helped by this, Ursula began to dream of a life so different from that lived by her distant, controlled mother. More than anything, Ursula wants to write and so she spends much of her childhood scribbling plays and acting in them with her servant and best friend Mary as well as her siblings and other children. Ursula has dreams of becoming a playwright but her background is against her and, while still a young girl of just fifteen, she is married off to the much older Lord Tyringham. The life of Lady Tyringham has little to do with the life Ursula lives in her dreams.
The Illumination of Ursula Flight is a beautifully glittery tale of Ursula Flight’s determined efforts to escape her destiny and forge one of her own, all set against the glamorous backdrop of the decadent Restoration court of Charles II and his mistresses. Initially, the newly married Ursula spends most of her time in the countryside, protected by her husband, an imprisonment indeed. But when she finally arrives in court, she shines. But perhaps the most enjoyable part of all of this, for this reader, is the way in which Ursula copes with her life away from all she loves – the novel includes extracts from all manner of Ursula’s scribblings, including scenes from plays, notes on how she spends a day, letters, journal entries and so much more, all presented in a font so evocative of the late 17th century.
This is very much Ursula’s novel. She narrates it, she fills it with her writings and, as a result, it sparkles with her personality. She has so much to give, despite what she must endure. She wants independence and to be a writer, but she also wants to be in love, and the scenes in which she must consummate her marriage with her curiously awful husband are, by contrast with much of the rest of the novel, painful to read and a reminder of how horrific such a marriage can be. Aside from the fact that Ursula must endure his fumblings, she is at risk of being emotionally crushed. And matters aren’t helped when she does find somebody to love. There are so many pitfalls lying in wait for young attractive women of means.
The pages of The Illumination of Ursula Flight fly through the fingers. Ursula herself is an absolute delight and there are other people we meet along the way who also grab our attention, notably Lord Tyringham’s unappealing sister. There’s a real sadness in the descriptions of Ursula’s mother. I felt for her. Her entire married life has been spent pregnant, usually with tragic results. No wonder Ursula wishes for a different future.
I really enjoyed the depiction of Charles II’s court and also this London with its theatres, actors and hangers on. It comes to life so colourfully, aided by the extracts from plays. These are larger than life personalities and Ursula fits right in. I must admit that I found the novel slightly frothier than I was expecting. This is a very light and fast read but it is also entertaining and often witty and playful, enlivened by its interesting and effective format. I enjoyed my time with Ursula Flight and wished her every success with her dreams and hopes, while feeling for her during her times of distress. She epitomises the times in which she lived and I can imagine her in her glorious gowns with arranged hair and flattering face patches. Her beauty is certainly reflected in the absolutely stunning cover of the novel and in its use of fonts. It all combines to present such a pleasurable read.