What a wonderful book. That's got to be the only word for it. When I picked this up at the library I had no recollection of ordering it at all, though I must have done, so thank you to whoever might have written about it somewhere and brought it to my attention. I didn't write down any artful quotations to demonstrate the subtlety of the writing, because it's not like that. The story totally carries this book, and the picture on the front lets you know that it is really going to be a swash buckling adventure (no pirates, but I couldn't come up with a better expression). And although somewhat in the background it turns out that the cultivation of peaches is vital to the tale.
Alice and Lilian are twins, divided by circumstances beyond their control. The trouble is that, since it is set in the victorian era, most things are beyond their control. This story is, to a certain extent, a commentary on the position of women in victorian times, most particularly society's (i.e. men's) views on the sexuality of women and what was considered correct/feminine behaviour. At the start of the tale Alice is living in the company of a variety of aged aunts and her grandmother, taking care of her eccentric father's huge collection of interesting and educational objects, many of which seem to have been purchased after the end of the Great Exhibition. He is a retired successful businessman, and his interests and passions seem to vary from day to day and almost from moment to moment, constantly trying to keep up with the scientific advances and new inventions. Alice spends her time dusting and cataloging, caring for plants in the hot-house and strangely filling the small bowls of water under the feet of the furniture (I think it keeps in ants away).
Lilian, now on the other side of the world, has been married off to an awful minister and gone to spread christianity to the heathens of India. She relishes the challenges of this new and alien environment, whilst he suffers every illness and insect, the heat and the dust, and rather swiftly dies of tetanus. Lilian is left with the expat community, who judge most harshly her interest and assimilation into the local culture. And then someone from her past turns up unexpectedly, and he can't resist trying to pick up where they left off.
Back home meanwhile Alice has struck up a friendship with, Mr Blake, a young photographer who has come to record her father's collection. Her intelligence and intellectual curiosity, which had been encouraged and even fostered by her father up till now, has suddenly come under the scrutiny of a Mr Cattermole, a new friend of her father. Her previous contact with him, involving the cover up of her sister's 'disgrace', was not something she will quickly forget. He considers that her intellect is damaging her 'femininity' and causing mental health problems resulting in changes to her sexuality, which require horrific medical intervention. His attitudes were apparently commonplace at the time, and it can only be the tip of the iceberg of what treatment was meted out to women over the years in the name of 'science'. Another of the many reasons to be grateful for feminism in all it's forms.
In the end these two spunky and resourceful women overcome the obstacles that threaten to confine their lives (with the assistance of the thoroughly underestimated aunties) and stride confidently into a new future.
A really great fun read, but with quite a serious political edge to it, and some interesting stuff about colonialism too. Mr Blake redeems himself but not enough to merit abandoning each other and their lust for freedom.