Twenty-year-old Charlotte Lamb laid her finest gowns into the trunk . . . . Then came her promenade dresses, evening dresses and gayer day dresses. . . .She looked at the trunk filled with her beautiful years, her happy vain youth, and firmly shut the lid.
In this way Julie Klassen introduces us to Charlotte on the morning of the day she leaves home -– to the good-riddance of her cold father, the vicar, and her jealous sister. But the leaving is anything but a relief to her. For she is on her way to London and Milkweed Manor, a lying-in hospital for unwed mothers. In Lady of Milkweed Manor, Klassen goes on to tell the story of Charlotte’s coming-of-age through the birth of her child and the difficult decisions she must make as a single mother in early 19th-century England.
Klassen establishes and sustains the historical ambience of the book with all the right paraphernalia. She’s obviously done her homework into what people wore, ate, drove, how they spent their leisure, even how they talked: “A pleasant prospect?”, “How fortuitous . . . .”, “Is this a new affliction?” The society she has created is rife with class consciousness, courtly though sometimes insincere manners, and strong ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable. It reminded me of the world of Jane Austen.
I found the characters, who take their cues from their time and place, realistic, though sometimes irritating. People then were so ingratiatingly polite and stuck on appearances! Toward the book’s first lady Charlotte, I felt mostly sympathy. Dr. Daniel Taylor is a very nice man – almost too virtuous to be believed – and worthy of the romantic tension that flows between Charlotte and him through much of the story. The only rank villains are the immediate members of Charlotte’s own family. Other characters provoked a range of feelings in me, from pity to outrage.