Review: Dwell in Possibility
I was initially drawn to Eleanor Courtown, as it was essentially a story about an Irish immigrant to Canada, and I tend to be drawn to stories about the Irish. But in case there’s any confusion: this isn’t the story of a poor Irish Catholic girl fleeing starvation in her native country to find work in another. What makes Eleanor Courtown so interesting in premise is that it actually follows a very wealthy Anglo-Irish woman who makes her way to a new country for unexpected reasons.
(While I don’t know if she was ever defined as such, I’m using the term Anglo-Irish here, as it’s the best way to distinguish the title character from most of the others who left Ireland to escape the spreading starvation that was imposed, in part, by policies of the ruling class. So my initial sympathy level with Eleanor Courtown as a character was somewhat mixed, but I was willing to let her tell us her story, so to speak.)
Eleanor was raised in the protection and privilege expected of her class, but she also has a mind of her own and a strong sense of personal values. After her beloved cousin crosses the Atlantic with her new husband to move to Canada, Eleanor misses her desperately. When Eleanor begins receiving news that some tragedy has occurred, she breaks all the rules and boards a ship to find her cousin.
The journey is difficult, and Eleanor’s arrival is hardly greeted with fanfare. What’s more, she immediately finds herself up against the challenge of locating her cousin in a place that’s completely unknown to her and where no one particularly cares about who she is or what her mission happens to be. She books into a fine hotel, expecting that she’ll be able to find her cousin nearby, but it proves to be more difficult than that. Eventually, she places an advertisement, only to receive a response she could hardly have anticipated: her recently widowed cousin has remarried and moved to a more remote community in a rural part of Ontario.
So Eleanor continues to track down her cousin in and finds that she is hardly living in the comfort to which she has been accustomed. Instead, she’s making do in what amounts to a shack and apparently now married to a man of low class and even lower principles. Eleanor’s purpose becomes one of getting her cousin out of there, but of course it’s not that simple.
Fortunately, Eleanor manages to make some new friends and, along the way, come to understand that many of those social expectations she grew up believing to be fixed and essential really don’t matter so much in this new world.
For me, what made Eleanor Courtown so interesting is the character’s voice and the way the author allows it to evolve ever so slowly during the story. I also appreciated how the author avoided a practice that tends to irk me in other historical fiction stories: Eleanor never turns into a “modern” young woman who embraces more palatable ideas for the contemporary reader. (I read these stories sometimes in which female characters all but talk like 21st-century feminists, and I’m mystified by the lack of historical congruity. They just didn’t, because they weren’t, no matter how much the authors put the words in their mouths. Sure, some of them were ahead of their time. But not that ahead.)
Yes, at times Eleanor comes across as priggish, and she certainly grows to appreciate how many of those priggish ideas don’t have a place in this new life she has embraced. But she never steps out of time, and I give the author a lot of credit for that. At the end of the story, she’s still very much a wealthy Anglo-Irish woman of the late 19th century who has just come to see some of those Victorian restrictions — i.e., the complex social rules that men and women in fine society would have embraced — as having less value in a place where life could demand so much.
As a result of how the author handles the character’s storytelling, I wouldn’t say that Eleanor Courtown is the fastest read, although honestly I got quite caught up in it and found myself blazing through it rather quickly. (It must have been the novelty of reading historical fiction that actually seemed historical…) That being said, there’s more of a steady pace here, so I wouldn’t say this is meant to be a page-turner: rather it’s a thoughtful look at an interesting character who has a lot to share and a lot to learn.