Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“The passion that he’d pledged at St. Pancras, the pledge that she’d taken at sixteen as everlasting—there were still moments when she felt it. But trust in it, the way she did then? Maybe not. She might not then, by nineteen, have staked her whole life on that love, as she did that first summer. Because what if it wasn’t an entirely new kind of love the two of them had discovered? What if it was just another one of those great romances that flames high and then turns to ash?”
In every life there is a midnight, a dark moment, and a critical turning point. Victoria Shorr takes three women from history, and captures them on that threshold. Jane Austen accepts the proposal of a wealthy suitor, and then the next morning, reneges and says she cannot marry him. Still recovering from her most recent miscarriage, Mary Shelley waits on the shores of the Gulf of Spezia for word of her husband, who has been missing at sea for five days. Joan of Arc’s portrait is taken on the eve of her execution for heresy. Fearing the fire, she recants, only to recant the recantation upon further reflection. These are their darkest hours, their crucial decisions.
Shorr divides her work into three separate sections, beginning with Jane Austen, then Mary Shelley, and finally Joan of Arc. The chapters also grow progressively longer; only fifty pages for Jane Austen, then twice that for Mary Shelley, and a full one hundred and twenty pages for Joan of Arc. Austen’s section is short, and sticks closely by the facts, though Midnight is by its nature speculative, imagining what these women must have been thinking and feeling in such circumstances. But this style does not become fully realized until Shelley’s section, and takes its fullest form with Joan of Arc. When she recants, Joan of Arc is no more, and becomes simply Girl X, who knows nothing of saints and kings, and simply wants to live. Joan is the hero, the chosen, the Maid of Orléans. Girl X just wants to avoid being burned alive.
As a whole, these three sections cohere somewhat. While Austen’s section feels underdeveloped, it makes an interesting counterpoint to Shelley, since both women’s choices about marriage had profound impacts on them as writers. Could Austen have written and revised her novels married to a man who sired ten children on the woman he did eventually marry? Shelley is evidence of just what a toll childbearing could take on mind and body. Most of her writing career came after her husband’s death. Both Shelley and Joanne of Arc feel fully fleshed out in their adjacent chapters, but Joanne is not English, not a writer—not even literate—and while Shelley is awaiting news of the death of her husband, Joan is a maiden awaiting the knock that will bring her own death. In many respects, Joanne seems almost to belong to another book entirely.
There will no doubt be some debate over categorization of this book, which straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. It is based in fact, and significantly researched, as the bibliography indicates, but it is also interpretive, verging on novelization, and this only becomes more the case as Midnight progresses. If the book’s feet are on the ground, its head is in the clouds, delighting in speculation. Despite being somewhat uneven, it makes for an interesting journey, chewing over that which we cannot know for sure, but can vividly imagine as we put ourselves into the shoes of these famous women.