In my review of Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn, I mentioned that just lately it has seemed as though I have been reading a lot of mysteries that seem to have similar settings and characters (i.e young women who become amateur sleuths (two of whom are recent widows) and all set in Victorian times). This was actually the first of those mysteries that I read, and yet strangely enough is the last review written. How odd!For Emily, accepting the proposal of Philip, the Viscount Ashton, was an easy way to escape her overbearing mother, who was set on a grand society match. So when Emily's dashing husband died on safari soon after their wedding, she felt little grief. After all, she barely knew him. Now, nearly two years later, she discovers that Philip was a far different man from the one she had married so cavalierly. His journals reveal him to have been a gentleman scholar and antiquities collector who, to her surprise, was deeply in love with his wife. Emily becomes fascinated with this new image of her dead husband and she immerses herself in all things ancient and begins to study Greek.
Emily's intellectual pursuits and her desire to learn more about Philip take her to the quiet corridors of the British Museum, one of her husband's favorite places. There, amid priceless ancient statues, she uncovers a dark, dangerous secret involving stolen artifacts from the Greco-Roman galleries. And to complicate matters, she's juggling two very prominent and wealthy suitors, one of whose intentions may go beyond the marrying kind. As she sets out to solve the crime, her search leads to more surprises about Philip and causes her to question the role in Victorian society to which she, as a woman, is relegated.
Lady Emily Ashton had the misfortune to be married and then widowed very shortly thereafter. Her husband, Sir Philip appeared to have not formed any great emotional bond with his wife, and to be fair, the feeling was pretty much mutual as far as Lady Ashton was concerned. She barely knew her husband, other than the fact that he loved to go hunting in Africa, which is where he died. For her part, marriage meant a chance to escape from an overbearing society mother and having done her familial duty. As the daughter of an Earl, it was her responsibility to attract a suitably titled husband.
With her husband dead, Emily has been forced to basically withdraw from society whilst she undertakes her period of mourning. Inspired by the discovery of some journals belonging to her husband, instead of feeling constrained by her period of mourning, it is a period of freedom for her as she begins to learn some Greek, to know more about her dead husband and his interests, and as she begins to wonder if perhaps he had lived there would have been a chance to actually learn to love her husband.
It is this romantic hopelessness that causes Emily to become more interested in many of the beautiful antique objects that her husband surrounded himself with and for her to become a regular visitor to the British Museum. She stumbles onto a forgery plot, and soon finds herself with more excitement than she knows what to do with. As her period of mourning comes to an end and she prepares to reenter society as a widow of beauty and financial independence, Emily finds herself with not one but two admirers, both of whom were connected with her husband. It is however difficult to deal with suitors when one seems to be falling in love with your own dead husband.
This novel is a charming read about a woman who is trying to once more find her sense of self in the world of her time - a time when the social restrictions for a young woman were very strict - whilst also having to reevaluate the things that she knows about her own history. It was interesting to take a side trip or two to France where the rules were not quite so extreme.
It was also interesting to get a comparison to Emily's life by looking at the lives of her friends Ivy and Margaret, and to a lesser extent her French friend Cecile. Ivy is a newly married young woman, subject to the restrictions placed on her by her somewhat conservative husband (his shock at discovering his young wife had a taste for Emily's port collection was very amusing). Margaret is an American heiress, something of a blue stocking who doesn't really want to be part of society and therefore seen as eccentric, and then the freedom allowed to Cecile within French society.
The historical details about the life and times of a young Victorian, from customs to fashion to language were beautifully integrated into the storyline and yet Alexander still managed to provide us with a very intriguing mystery about a compelling female amateur sleuth.