Full disclosure here: E.K. Johnston is a friend of mine and Erin, and I am in awe with the ease in which she writes. I do have to say that her latest novel, an alternative history, LGBTQ-friendly, comedy of manners entitled That Inevitable Victorian Thing is not what I would call my cup of tea. Even so, I plowed through it before bed, reading chapters out loud to Erin, and I'm very glad that I did.
That Inevitable Victorian Thing feels kind of like those wackier episodes of Chopped on the Food Network where contestants are asked to create a credible entree in thirty minutes using the most contradictory of ingredients (like eggs, oranges and peanut butter), but Ms. Johnston is a master chef. Perhaps the strongest feature of this book is the detailed world that she has built, with about two hundred years of backstory as a backdrop to a very personal tale about two highschool sweethearts who've known each other since kindergarten, and the crown princeess of the British Empire.
Key details that build the background of the story include the fall of the United States in the mid-19th century due to slave revolts, and a Queen Victoria who decided against farming her children out among the crowns of Europe, and instead turned inward to her Empire, pursuing a form of Darwinism that valued genetic diversity and inclusion above all else.
The result is a very strange version of the Victorian Era, which has survived into the 21st century, where everybody is aware of their genetic makeup and many consider pursuing romantic engagements in terms of their best genetic match -- that being defined as that which gives your offspring as diverse a genetic history as possible, rather than a hefty amount of British inbreeding. The society is simultaneously structured and egalatarian. Passions are kept in check by manners, and yet everybody is very careful not to pre-judge, particularly on the basis of sexual orientation.
I have to admit, that while I found this rather utopian rethinking of British colonialism compelling, I had difficulty in believing it -- in spite of how well Ms. Johnston has conducted her historial research. Maybe it's a trope that compells me to see a society as mannered as the one presented here as anything but roiled by passions and prejudices and petty-minded thinking underneath, but if one were to try and fix the social injustices inherent in the colonialism of Victorian England, one is hard-pressed to think of ways the Victorians could do it and still be Victorian. The path that has given us any sense of egalitarianism and respect for diversity has largely been the one which eschewed the values many Victorians stood most strongly for.
This is not to say that this makes me dislike the book. I guess I was expecting more of a study on how the 21st century Victorians could both keep servants and still not be rife with the problems that such an overtly classed society presents. But that's not the main story Ms. Johnston wanted to tell. Instead, she presents us with a very personal story about a young couple, Helena and August -- two upper-middle-class children drawn together out of shared experience if not outright love, and young Victoria-Margaret, a young woman about to experience what may be her last summer of freedom before she takes on the duties of being the heir to the throne of the British Empire. Victoria-Margaret adopts a disguise as Margaret Sandwich, and becomes caught up in the lives of Helena and August's families, attending debut balls, and finding herself unexpectedly attracted to Helena. August, meanwhile, frets over the damage done to his family's business by American pirates on the Great Lakes, and the illegal measures he may have taken in order to keep his head above water. At the same time, Helena finds out something about herself that upends all of her expectations with regards to August and her future family life. And all this while we engage in shenanigans in Muskoka Cottage Country.
That's the final wacky ingredient that makes this concoction utterly charming. This is Muskoka in the 21st century with a Victorian overlay. There's references to the cottage-country commute, to swinging on a flying fox, dancing the Rover and singing The Log Driver's Waltz, and Ms Johnston had more than a little fun convincing readers that some of the weirder traditions found here are actual traditions in real Toronto cottage country (or, maybe they are real. You'll just have to see). All of this is bound together by Johnston's effortless prose and nuanced characterization and dialogue.
The result is too interesting to put down, even if you do want to shake Helena and tell her to just talk to August or her parents, goddammit, and even if the book just sort of ends just as we really want to see how the three main characters go on from their understanding. The world of this book is big and interesting. I valued the glimpse I got of it, even if I wanted more.