Venetia Lovell lives by the sea in Kent with her pretty, frivolous mother and idle younger brother. Venetia’s father, Theo, is an interior decorator to the rich and frequently travels away from home, leaving his sensible and artistic daughter to look after the family. Venetia designs paper hangings and she and her father often daydream about having an imaginary shop where they would display the highest quality furniture, fabrics and art to his clients.
When a handsome but antagonistic stranger, Jack Chamberlaine, arrives at the Lovell’s cottage just before Christmas bringing terrible news, Venetia’s world is turned upside-down and the family have no option but to move to London, to the House in Quill Court and begin a new life. Here, Venetia’s courage and creativity are tested to breaking point, and she discovers a love far greater than she could have ever imagined . . .
Charlotte Betts is an author I have been aware of for some time, but only recently have I begun to read her books. I thoroughly enjoyed The Spice Merchant’s Wife, which is set in Restoration London and in which Ms. Betts impressed me with her ability to imbue her story with a strong sense of time and place and to depict the trials and tribulations of the day-to-day lives of the characters. In her latest novel, The House in Quill Court, the setting is Regency London, and the author has once again made use of meticulous research in order to bring the city and its denizens to life and to craft an entertaining story featuring engaging – and not so engaging – characters.
Venetia Lovell has lived her entire life on the Kent coast, where she and her brother have grown up secure in the love of both their parents. Life isn’t always easy, but she is happy; her mother and father are devoted to each other, even though Theo Lovell spends a lot of time travelling around the country as part of his job as what we would today call an interior designer. Venetia has inherited her father’s talent for creating attractive patterns and colour schemes, and even though it will be rather unorthodox, she hopes she will soon join him in his work. She has already come up with a few designs for paper hangings which are being produced for use in selected homes, and together, they dream of opening an elegant showroom to showcase the highest quality furniture, fabrics and art to their clients
But when Mr. Lovell dies suddenly, Venetia’s world is turned upside down and inside out. Not only does she have to cope with the death of a beloved parent, she is confronted by the completely unexpected news that her father had been living a double life for the last two decades or so, travelling between his family in Kent and another family he maintained elsewhere. Venetia is shocked and betrayed – but there is more devastation to come. Her father’s step-son, Major John (Jack) Chamberlaine delivers the final blow; Mr. Lovell’s last wish was that both his families should unite under the same roof and work together to earn the income to necessary to support themselves.
Bewildered and hurt, both families relocate to Quill Court in the City of London. The Major is severely disapproving and not at all inclined to be conciliatory, but appears discomfited when Venetia tells him about her father’s plans to take her into his business. Jack then takes her to a busy commercial street in Cheapside where he shows her a shop laid out just as she and her father used to imagine, and which she realises must have been his plan for providing for his two families.
Unfortunately, however, the interior is in a bad way. Many of the fabrics have been destroyed, ornaments smashed, paint smeared; Jack reveals that Mr. Lovell had happened upon some ruffians while they were intent upon the damage and that that it was the shock of discovering it that killed him.
After absorbing that sad news, Venetia determines then and there that she is going to carry out her father’s intentions. Her ambition takes flight; the family will make a living by supplying a bespoke interior design service to the upper and newly emerging middle classes. Jack is sceptical at first, but Venetia’s enthusiasm and her obvious talent and belief in their ability to succeed eventually win him over and Lovell and Chamberlaine is born.
The story is told from the viewpoints of Venetia and her maid, Kitty, in alternating chapters, and the author carefully intertwines their stories, showing two very different lifestyles and two different sides of London through their contrasting experiences. Both young women have to work for a living, but there the similarities end; Kitty’s work is hard manual labour while Venetia’s is creative and fulfilling. Ms. Betts also does an excellent job with her portrait of the darker, seamier side of Regency London, a place where law enforcement was patchy to say the least (the Metropolitan Police Force was not formed until 1829) and where elegant, newly built townhouses co-existed with squalid slums, rookeries and brothels.
Most of the latter half of the book is taken up with Venetia’s determination to unite the local shopkeepers to fight the underworld boss who runs most of the criminal activity in London and wider afield, and who has all the local shops tied into his protection racket. Some of the decisions she makes are rather naïve but Ms. Betts doesn’t shy away from showing that what she wants to achieve isn’t going to be easy and that in a war, innocent people can be hurt.
The story is well-paced and builds to an exciting dénouement that kept me eagerly turning the pages, although I found the writing simplistic in places and the plot turns on perhaps one too many coincidences. The alternating storylines work well, although there were times when it was a little frustrating to end a chapter wanting to know what happened to that character next and having to switch to the other story – but the chapters themselves are fairly short, so that wasn’t too much of a problem. The romantic elements in the book are fairly low-key; Venetia and Jack move slowly from antagonism to uneasy friendship and then to more, and while Kitty also finds love, her happiness is short-lived.
Taken as a whole, I enjoyed The House in Quill Court in spite of those reservations about the plotting and the writing. The characters are well-drawn and there’s no doubt that the author’s research into the London of the period – complete with its gin palaces, street-hawkers, grand houses and grander ladies – has been extensive. That rich backdrop permeates the novel, putting readers squarely in the stinking, muck-strewn streets and alleyways of the East End, and then enabling us to enter Venetia’s showroom and see and feel the colours, designs and fabrics that she stocks there.
I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to enjoy a well-written, intricately researched piece of historical fiction.