A Curious Beginning was my first real look at a historical fiction novel. I have always been interested in the genre, but never really took the time to look anything up that had good reviews. Thanks to Vaginal Fantasy, I was introduced to Deanna Raybourn as A Curious Beginning was the hiatus pick chosen by members of the club for the month of January. (I know I am behind, my goal this month was to catch up on the past two months of book club picks.)
I will admit that I was a little skeptical of A Curious Beginning at first. I love Victorian novels and I was really worried about how this one would turn out. Despite my initial concerns, Raybourn mimics the Victorian style beautifully. Furthermore, she throws out hints that the novel was written with a Victorian setting in mind, as she makes direct references to Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen and Anne Radcliffe.
This review contains spoilers
Although certainly Victorian in style and tone, the characterization of the female lead, Veronica Speedwell, strays away from the ideal Victorian woman (and let’s be honest, no one wants to read about the true Victorian “heroine”, as women were considered to be passive and emotional, among many other things). Veronica is everything that a Victorian woman was not and honestly, it’s a wonderful breath of fresh air. I was vaguely reminded of Austen reading through A Curious Beginning, as there are many small references and parodies towards the “proper” actions, activities and mannerisms of women during the Victorian era. In fact, Veronica, in a way, reminds me of an Austen heroine, mainly because she steps outside of the boundaries given to her sex.
Veronica Speedwell is a scientist, a lepidopterist to be specific. She studies and collects all manner of butterflies. I will admit that at first, I was a little unsure of what to think about this. Veronica is described as a witty, intelligent and bold character that challenges every boundary given to women in Victorian society. The idea of her collecting butterflies as a profession seemed a little out of place, that is until I learned more about her character. Veronica is learned in many aspects of the sciences, favoring natural history, in particular. She is very aware of what is going on in the world and loves learning and mystery. Butterflies, in particular, gave her a reason to get out of the house without being questioned.
What was that? Oh, butterflies. They afforded me the chance to get away from the villages where I grew up. Girls are not supposed to go roaming about the countryside without purpose. It is considered eccentric. So I bought a butterfly net and a killing jar, and that made it quite all right.
I am a student of natural history, all branches. I subscribe to all of the major journals of exploration and discovery. As you might deduce from my butterfly net, lepidoptery is my particular specialty. I hunt butterflies as a profession, filling orders for Aurelians who lack the means or the desire to hunt their own specimens.
Speaking of science, Raybourn does a great job detailing the intellectual nature of Veronica and Stoker. There is an astounding amount of detail when it comes to explaining both of their professions. We are given every detail about the butterflies that come up in the novel, thanks to Veronica. We are also given the small details about what it takes to collect and examine a scientific specimen, especially where Stoker is concerned as he is a taxidermist. Furthermore, we are given many details about scientific theories which serve a purpose concerning the mystery elements of the novel.
Veronica is the exact opposite of what a Victorian woman was supposed to be. Daring, witty, and adventurous, Veronica is unafraid to speak her mind. In fact, she is incredibly open about everything. From scientific opinions, to love interests, to speaking her mind about characters, especially Stoker, Veronica does it all. She is extremely independent – to the point where she is unafraid to travel on her own for her scientific pursuits. Furthermore, she knows how to defend herself in a fight. She is quick thinking, feisty and is unafraid to wield a weapon when in danger.
The mystery in A Curious Beginning starts at the very beginning. After the death of Veronica’s last living relative and guardian, an intruder breaks into her home. Veronica, unafraid of the potential consequences, believing the intruder to be someone merely searching for money in her absence, chases after him. Just when she is about to be abducted by the man, a mysterious old gentleman appears, the Baron. Although the Baron warns Veronica that she is in great danger, she does not believe him (a trend that continues throughout the novel). However, he provides her with information that she has never known before. Raised as an orphan in the care of two women who hold no relation to her, Veronica has never known her family. Believing the intrusion to be related to her heritage, the Baron urges her to leave for her own safety. Interested in information about her mother, and unable to give up a free trip to London, Veronica joins the Baron, even though she does not believe that she is in danger.
The Baron leaves her in the care of one of his close friends, Stoker. Shortly after his departure, the Baron is murdered. Immediately, Stoker realizes that Veronica must be related to the murder in some way as the Baron left her in his care under instructions to protect her, even if it means death. A strange and dangerous journey begins, in which a number of mysteries are unraveled during their adventures to discover who killed the Baron and why.
Although A Curious Beginning falls under the mystery genre and I certainly found myself wondering about the murder, as well as the details surrounding Veronica’s past, the relationship between Veronica and Stoker seemed more important. While there are no problems with that (I actually enjoyed the developing relationship and tension between them), some parts of the mystery seemed too easy. The action scenes were great. I was constantly wondering who the murderer could be and why Veronica was a target. But when it came down to uncovering the mystery, things weren’t that difficult. In fact, all it took was finding two sets of documents, which happened rather quickly. Sure, obtaining one set of documents was dangerous and the other required solving a puzzle, but, Veronica and Stoker uncovered the reason behind the attacks rather quickly. Even though I very much enjoyed the adventures leading up to the big reveal regarding Veronica’s past and the reveal itself, I was a little disappointed in how easy the information was to obtain. Despite this, the mystery itself was very interesting. Once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down and I was rewarded for it when the details surrounding Veronica’s mysterious past were revealed.
One other small thing that bothered me was how Veronica treated the situation surrounding the danger that she was in. Despite being warned multiple times by a number of different people that she was in danger, Veronica refused to believe it. Normally, I would just think of this as a normal feeling of denial, especially out of fear, but Veronica is intellectually minded. As a scientist, she is trained to examine each and every possibility. The number of times that she outright denies any sort of danger or connection to the murder really bothered me, especially when she insisted, even after coming face to face with abduction multiple times, that she had no connection to the mysterious events at hand.
When it comes to Veronica and Stoker, despite their disagreements, the two are perfect for each other. They are both scientists who enjoy working with animals and natural history. They are both clever and extremely intelligent individuals. They work well together and respect one another. They are unafraid of the unknown, passionate about their work and have complex and interesting pasts. Last but not least, they are unafraid to be themselves around one another. There’s definitely tension there and it’s absolutely wonderful to see them warm up to one another as the novel progresses. Stoker treats Veronica as an equal and the two work quite well together; I am really looking forward to reading the rest of the novels in the series to see how their adventures and relationship progress.
I recognized his nature as my own. It was as if we were two castaways from a far-off land, adrift among strangers whose ways we could not entirely understand. But something within us spoke the same language, for all our clashes of words. He did not trust me entirely… And I frequently frustrated him to the point of madness. But I knew that whatever bedeviled him, he had need of me – and it seemed betrayal to turn my back upon one of my own kind.
Despite my small qualms with Veronica, I loved her as a character. Not only was she extremely unique, especially as the heroine of a Victorian novel, but she was an amusing character. I really appreciated her quirky and extremely open nature. As she was unafraid to speak her mind, there were a number of times where I found myself laughing at her small arguments and comebacks when she was speaking to Stoker. Furthermore, I enjoyed the fact that she was so open and honest about her sex life. There are so many instances in which she is open and unashamed of her actions, but Stoker is shy and embarrassed, especially where sex and relationships are concerned. Not only did it make me love Veronica more, but made me appreciate their relationship. Despite the reservations from both parties, it’s obvious that they need each other, even if it’s just as companions, and I can’t wait to see how their future adventures unfold.