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bookgazing ([personal profile] bookgazing) wrote2010-12-13 01:12 pm
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'The Agency: A Spy in the House' - Y S Lee

At twelve Mary Quinn finds herself in the dock, sentenced to hang for stealing. One minute she’s being bullied back down to the cells by a female warden, the next she’s passed out and awakes to find an offer of life before her. She has been abducted from jail and given the chance to start again by joining Miss Schrimshaw’s Academy for young ladies, a charity school committed to educating women in useful pursuits. That doesn’t just mean learning to play the piano and do a bit of needlework, these girls are trained to take on jobs deemed suitable for Victorian ladies (like nursing and teaching) so that they can support themselves.

Flash forward to a seventeen year old Mary. Miss Schrimshaw’s Academy has equipped her with useful skills, but Mary finds herself unable to settle to a profession. She hopes for more from a job, ‘a sense of pride and active interest in work’ and has come to explain that to the ladies that run the school, Mrs Frame and Miss Treleaven. In return for her honesty they reveal that the school also maintains a female spy ring that sometimes helps the police. The advantage of a female spy is that ‘women – posing as governesses or domestic servants, for example – are often totally ignored.’ . So, would Mary like to become a spy?

Y S Lee’s first novel is called ‘A Spy in the House’, so no surprises, Mary’s answer is ‘Um, Yes!’. She goes through the training (sadly this all takes place outside the text) and is given her first assignment working as a companion in the house of the Thorolds. Henry Thorold is suspected of having stolen precious objects from prominent Indian families. Mary’s job is to watch and listen in case she finds out any information that the primary agent on the case can use. During a character assessment by her tutors Mary’s flaws are described as ‘…a bad temper…She dislikes correction and goes to great lengths to avoid being in the wrong.’, so I think you can guess that she’s not so great at just listening and waiting. It’s these flaws that drive the action of the story as Mary begins investigating actively and so finds herself trapped in a wardrobe with the delectable James, who is investigating other of Thorold’s possibly dodgy business ventures. His brother George is set on marrying Angelica Thorold, the sharp young lady Mary has been engaged to accompany everywhere. James and Mary eventually decide to team up and investigate the family together, leading to an action full plot with lashings of romance.

This novel is shaped by a strong feminist commentary on Victorian history. Lee’s women feel like the kind of characters a modern reader will have no problem sympathising with, they feel modern and emancipated – come on, lady spies, that sounds modern and emancipated right? Yet Lee is always careful to make sure that she creates the emancipation of her female characters in very Victorian terms, in order to show just what kind of extraordinary things realistic Victorian women could achieve without being disgraced and cast outside of society. Mary can be a lady spy, as long as she doesn’t tell anyone, because no one in Victorian society would suspect the quiet, demure female of being a spy. The girls at Miss Schrimshaw’s who don’t go on to be spies are trained for jobs that could be rewarding and get practical skills to help them increase their chances of employment, but they’re not actively encouraged to rebel and pursue traditionally male careers (although I expect Mrs Frame and Miss Treleaven would be all for female doctors etc). As Aarti says in her more excellent discussion post the women in this novel are ‘working from within their constraints and then pushing those constraints outward’. While I’m sure they’d align themselves with women who want to go out and break those constraints open loudly and publically (in fact Mary does just that towards the end of the novel) the female characters in Lee’s novel work within societal constraints, or under cover of the sexist assumptions of society, in order to increase the amount of career emancipation they enjoy.

Now that’s not to say that these female characters always confirm society’s views on women in their efforts to advance their own professional gains. Mary, who we’ve seen described above as an impatient lady with a temper can’t always keep her thoughts inside her head. When men begin maligning her sex and (crucially) it won’t endanger her professional occupation she has to set them straight, as the conversation below shows:

‘He sighed patronizingly. “When men enlist, they know they are risking their lives. When gently bred young women flock to a military encampment, they not only endanger themselves, they also distract those who must look after them, and who ought to be thinking of other things.”

“And males are only too eager to blame all their shortcomings on the distraction represented by females,” Mary retorted. “As though nurses are the only women in an encampment!”

George’s jaw dropped at her rather obvious reference to prostitutes.’

When she can’t correct them out loud she tends to correct their thinking in her head which the reader can read and appreciate.

The idea that there might be romance between a chauvinistic product of his time like James and a kick ass lady spy like Mary seems like a terrible idea, especially after this conversation. What hope can Mary have of a fulfilling, honest life with a man who genuinely sees no problem with having a conversation like this:

‘ “Oh I’ll marry eventually,” he said calmly. “But when I do, it’ll be for the right reasons.”

“Which are?”

He waved his hand vaguely. “Money. Business contacts. Political connection.”

“And in return your wife would get?”

His expression suggested that it was an odd question. “A husband, of course.”

“That’s it?”

“What else do women want? Flowers? Jewels? Sonnet sequences? Children?” He shrugged. “I can manage all that.” ' .

However...the banter and the connection between them is so warm, it’s hard not to see them as a great romantic pairing. Lee resolves this in a satisfying way, appearing to realise that while the heat is there between her two characters a romantic relationship needs more to survive. She leaves her characters time to grow, without forcing them to abandon any hope of each other and in doing so creates a delicious feeling of romantic anticipation for the reader. No romantic compromises required, no compromised historical reality.

‘A Spy in the House’ is so much fun. Smart, historical fun. While the reader is following Mary on risky visits to warehouses, where she ventures under cover of darkness, dressed in boys clothing, or while the reader is watching James send an urchin boy to spy on people the reader is also absorbing interesting facts about Victorian London. It’s clear that Lee has done her research (says the woman who almost failed her course on Victorian life because she didn’t go to any lectures) and her integration of the research into the novel to create a believable picture of Victorian London is, in many, many places skilful and almost seamless. However, at times her research sticks out unnaturally. Some knowledge felt superfluous, as if it was added in because it had been researched and there was a convenient place to slot it in, rather than because the novel needed such facts be included to enhance plot, or atmosphere, or character. There were also places where I could tell that Lee was placing a teaching morsel from her research, but I wasn’t sure if I could tell that because I already knew that particular fact, or if it was because it was clumsily integrated.

Lee has included elements of Victorian society in her novel that may be less well known to the general reader. I’d never heard about the Lascars, Asian sailors who ended up stranded in Britain when they couldn’t sail anymore. It is exciting when historical novels reveal something unexpected and less well known about a historical period that has already been explored so often. The way she has integrated the Lascars into the main body of the novel, by creating a personal connection between Mary and a man living at the hostel for Lascars, makes them integral to the novel instead of a historical curiosity unearthed for novelty value.

I was less sure about Lee’s attempts to integrate the Lascar connection into the main investigation plot. Forging a connection between the mystery Mary is investigating and the Lascars allows Lee to naturally reveal the personal connection between Mary and the Lascars, but the connection between the Lascars and Henry Thorold felt like it created great demands on the central mystery for it to contain a second level of complexity. When you remember that Mary and James are investigating different dodgy dealings in the house of Thorold, that means the resolution to the plot has to bring three separate strands of suggested intrigue together. The book’s central mystery is overburdened by these demands and feels confusing, even convoluted as Lee strives to create a satisfying explanation that will tie all the elements together. I found the central plot of Henry Thorold’s dodgy business connections quite confusing, even when it was being explained at the end. I am terrible at working out plots and retaining mystery plots in general, but all I can tell you is I don’t now really remember the exact machinations of the villain’s scheme and how all the different parts quite fitted together. The relationships between characters, the scene setting of Victorian London and the exploration of society all stick more firmly in my mind than the resolution of the mystery does (although obviously I still remember who the villain is).

If I have a personal complaint it’s that I really wanted to see Mary’s spy training taking place. I know that putting all the training in would not have improved the book. It would have slowed down the early pace, which I thought was pretty perfect. It would have made it one of those books where there’s too much back story before the main plot begins. So what I’d really like, (as a personal favour to me, a person who Y S Lee does not know and so obviously wishes to please) is a short story flashback where we see Mary train, or ideally a film version with a female spy training montage! I firmly believe in the link between of the filmic montages and giggling happiness.

For anyone like me who loves novels that feature boarding schools, or other houses of training where women train to be kick ass I recommend ‘The Women of Nell Gwynne’s’ by Kage Barker and 'Hex Hall’ by Rachel Hawkins.

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