A Factory of Cunning by Philippa Stockley
Harvest Books, 1st printing, 2006
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: Two women step off a ship in eighteenth-century London, a French noblewoman and her faithful maid, desperately fleeing scandal and even death in Amsterdam. Though nearly penniless upon arrival, the clever marquise and her maidservant soon embroil themselves into any number of schemes and situations, inveigling themselves into lives both innocent and evil. At a beloved friend’s behest, the marquise sets out to destroy the Earl Much, along the way raising a common whore to undreamt of heights and idly destroying another young woman for a perceived slight. The marquise finds among an entire city of people who are not what they seem, from the actress Poppy Salmon and the dowager Lady Danceacre to Parson Denyss and Urban Fine, and while this is no surprise to her, it adds a delicious thrill to her efforts. Calling herself Mrs Fox, the marquise settles into London, and the novel is told first from her perspective and through that of her loyal friend in Amsterdam, Dr Hubert Van Essel. The two correspond, detailing much of the marquise’s background as she makes her plans in England. Like the novel it attempts to succeed, A Factory of Cunning is epistolary, told in letters and occasionally in journal excerpts, making all the narrators curiously unreliable. Though this style serves it well to start, it soon becomes wearing as formerly minor characters add their correspondence, and we see less of the entertaining Mrs Fox, to the novel’s detriment.
I wanted to like this a lot, I really did. I was devastated to discover that I’d left it at Maiya’s on her birthday, and fretted at not returning to it for a week’s time, but when I picked it back up, it dragged. Not terribly, for it’s well-paced and moves along nicely, building to a fairly interesting climax, but it could have been so much better. There are footnotes, for crying out loud! And a glossary! It purports to be a sequel to Les Liaisons Dangeureuses! Those should be the mark of an excellent, intricate historical novel, but instead it’s just a frivolous read, with little insight into the human condition. Just before the mildly shocking denouement, I thought to myself, “This is all bark and no bite,” and despite the pathos and tragedy liberally sprinkled about by Stockley, it remains so as the novel fizzles to an insipid and uninspired conclusion. Mrs Fox begins as a witty, amusing character, and Lord Danceacre as an amusing English buffoon, but the two are gradually obscured by too many pallid secondary characters. The same thing happens with the plot, which starts promisingly enough, but soon becomes muddled and uninteresting, with little attention paid to the original scheme until it’s shoved in at the last moment. As for the much vaunted depravity, Stockley tried too hard. I was severely disappointed.
A light, amusing read for the beach, but nothing more.
Cover: I grow weary of powdered ladies peeping over fans.
Watching that ordinary couple kiss once more, I knew that it was time to start afresh. Never in France, for there I was utterly ruined; but England appealed, once time had softened the scandal. Anyone who remembered would recall my being scarred and blinded, and look out for such a tragic woman. So, I grafted to the idea of England, but the date of leaving stayed unnamed. The second winter still found us in our magpie home, with roaring fires and roaring trade.
24 June – 6 July