The Elsingham Portrait – Elizabeth Chater

One of the literary devices I’m always a complete sucker for is the character plucked from her own time and dropped, clueless, into another, whether through straightforward time travel (if there is such a thing) or some kind of sorcery. It’s the latter in The Elsingham Portrait – apparently – and lots of fun. I won this book through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways – thank you to the publisher and LT.

Kathryn Hendrix is having a bad day. Her boyfriend invited her to lunch, and she has been sitting at their table alone for over an hour, the rosy dreams she started out with of engagement rings and white weddings and an escape from her dreary, dreary life have begun to whiff away into nothing. Humiliation finally wins out over optimism, and she catches a bus to go home to her dreary apartment, only to see from the height of the bus just why her man never showed up: he is otherwise engaged. With someone much prettier and better dressed than Kathryn. With some thoughts of trying to reach him, she hurries off the bus, but it’s too late. And it starts to rain. And she left her umbrella somewhere. And she had jumped through a few hoops to be granted the time off from her dreary, underpaid job as a NYC librarian in order to meet Don … Crushed, unable to go back to work and face the coworkers who will certainly be expecting her to show up with a diamond, she takes shelter in what turns out to be an art gallery.

The focal point of the gallery’s collection is a stunning painting of a stunning woman in a golden gown. Kathryn looks into the painted eyes … and suddenly finds herself transported back to the time of the painting, 1775, and into the woman in the painting, the evil (or much-maligned) Lady Nadine Elsingham. Things do not go uphill from here.

Kathryn’s struggles to find help from someone, anyone, are largely realistic. Everyone around her believes that either Lady Nadine is up to something new, or she’s gone mad, or possibly both, and without any real proof of who she is and where (and when) she’s from Kathryn begins to have suspicions of her own about her sanity. She starts out by talking about the revolt about to happen in the Colonies – but since it hasn’t happened yet it doesn’t exactly serve as proof. Here the author missed a big step, for me: Kathryn asks the date, and is told that it is April 18, 1775, and I squeaked a little:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

I guess Kathryn doesn’t know her Longfellow, though, because instead of giving a similar squeak she begins talking about Lexington and Concord on April 19. Which meets with deep skepticism. It’s a tricky situation; anything she says which can’t be verified counts as raving; anything which can be verified counts as witchcraft – and either way she could end up slapped into Bedlam. Her strange accent is considered a trick; her lack of recognition for people around her is considered deceit; her apparent change of demeanor from cold and cutting to warm and innocently bewildered is considered bait for some new trap she’s setting. She can’t really win.

There are two things which – please be warned – may be spoiler-y which bothered me a little:

First, and less spoilerific, is Kathryn’s deep desire to return to her own time. In a way, I suppose, it bucks expectations: she has gone from being a somewhat plain and impoverished girl trapped in a somewhat dead-end boring job who has just been jilted … to being a gorgeous and wealthy woman, waited on hand and foot and married to a thrillingly handsome man. But she fights like mad to return home. It isn’t equal rights or sanitation or modern(ish) medicine or frustration with 18th century clothing, or even concern for the original owner of her current body that seems to drive her – it’s simply that she elsewhere and feels she needs to return. It never seems to occur to her until very late in the book that it might be a fine thing to begin to settle where and when she is.

The second thing (more spoileriferous), in two words: How? And – Why? Kathryn never learns the mechanism by which she was booted back two centuries, and therefore neither does the reader. Did it indeed have something to do with the evil witchy woman who apparently never left Nadine’s side, and the strange drug she would dose her charge with? Was it a spell? Or simply some bizarre Twilight Zone-esque swapping out of two women discontented with their lots? I would have loved to have seen at least a glimpse of Nadine’s fate; did she indeed swap with Kathryn and find herself dowdy and confused in a bewildering world of noise and speed, or did Kathryn just vanish (or collapse, an empty shell) and Nadine wisp out into the ether? In fact, I would love to see a companion book to The Elsingham Portrait, telling her story – free of the constraints of her day, in the era of mini-skirts and free love, her strong personality would have a blast, and free of the evil influence of the Donner woman she might turn out to be a decent human being. (In fact, I would love to completely steal this whole idea. Maybe someday after I’ve written the other eleventy-one ideas floating around in various states of completion…)

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