Review of Midnight Fires by A.C. Hutchison,
Vermont Sunday Magazine, April 4, 2010
RICH WITH HISTORY, PERSONALITY… It's reasonable, if regrettable, to believe that few 21st-century American women have ever heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, but had there been media in 18th-century Britain and Ireland comparable to today's Internet, surely this early crusader for women's rights would have been an international celebrity. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, did become famous for marrying the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and for writing "Frankenstein."
Nancy Means Wright, a prolific, disciplined and well-informed Vermont author living in the town of Cornwall, has seized upon the true story of Wollstonecraft to create the heroine of a finely honed mystery set in Ireland at a time, roughly corresponding with the American Revolution, when the Irish suffered under the often-cruel thumb of insensitive, tradition-bound British aristocrats. It wasn't entirely Irish Catholics suppressed by British Protestants, but it was largely that way.
Since the real Mary Wollstonecraft — once described as "a hyena in petticoats," Wright tells us — was an extremely controversial figure in the early and predictably futile struggles to liberate women from the stultifying yoke of traditional male domination, Wright had a rich field of history to harvest in gathering material for her novel.
And the preparation shines through, page after page. The reader who knows some Irish history, particularly in regard to the role played by the landed gentry from across the Irish Sea, will immediately recognize the literary landscape. Others may find their understanding of the still-vibrant Irish antipathy toward their English occupiers greatly expanded.
In the beginning of "Midnight Fires," Mary Wollstonecraft has left England to take up the role of governess — a role she believes is far below her intellectual capabilities — for the three oldest children of the arrogant English aristocrat who owns Mitchelstown Castle in County Cork.
(In the preface, Wright addresses the relationship between fact and fiction in her work: "I have taken the liberty of reconstructing (Mary's) months as governess with the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family as a novelist would, while remaining, for the most part, true to time, place, and several of the individuals historically connected with Mitchelstown Castle.")
Given Mary's firm belief in sexual equality (and yes, there's sex in this novel, but it isn't of the bodice-ripper variety) and her unrestrained disdain for the class system, it's no surprise that she quickly strikes up friendships not only with the castle's domestic servants but also with the Irish peasants who live under terribly bleak conditions and work on and around the estate.
One of them is a handsome young lad named Liam. When a young aristocrat is found murdered, Liam immediately becomes the prime suspect. If he surrenders, as some urge him to do, there's almost no chance the authorities will listen to his explanations of his innocence and a far greater chance that he'll pay the ultimate price for a crime he insists he did not commit. So Liam goes on the lam, but in time the authorities find him and slam him into the local jail. Should Mary help him escape?
In the meantime, Mary has to cope with not only the sometimes difficult children of the estate, a duty made more treacherous by the fact that, contrary to the assurances she gave her new employers, she is neither fluent in French nor skilled at playing the pianoforte. She also has to deal with their parents, an intellectually superficial couple with more wealth than sense and a highly cultivated sense of their own natural superiority.
Not that there's an absence of intelligence around the castle. The children, for example, engage in a vigorous debate concerning the significance of certain aspects of the Shakespeare play they'd studied. Margaret, the eldest and most temperamental, declares, "Macbeth! He was to blame. He was the one kept his lady there in that miserable castle. She just wanted to get out, that's all. She was tired of having to please everyone." Might she have been thinking of anyone she knew?
"My mother — my own blood mother — could kill if she had to," Margaret insists. "You underestimate her, all of you." Might this be an example of the writer's device known as foreshadowing? The reader may be tempted to think so, and so the plot thickens, as good plots do. And in this case it's a real stew as the time-honored separations between the social classes are challenged in interesting ways.
The author says she became interested in writing mysteries when she read Nancy Drew books as a child, and she has already produced a series featuring the single mother-dairy farmer sleuth Ruth Willmarth. Here, Wright demonstrates a fine grasp of the form while embracing the literary norms of the late 1700s. Some readers may be put off at first by her old style of storytelling, but the rewards for staying the course are substantial.
This novel, its cover graced by a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, may never crack the New York Times best-seller lists, and yet it is an impressive achievement for Nancy Means Wright.
To read it is to gain a deeper understanding not only of Irish history but, more generally, of human nature. The old hatreds have cooled and the cast of characters may change, but the human motivations — or weaknesses, if you will — remain in place. In that sense, this novel is timeless.
A.C. Hutchison retired as editor of The Times Argus in 1999.