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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Book Review: Jill by Amy Dillwyn

First published in 1884, Jill tells the story of a well-bred heroine who hates her home life and so decides to venture out into the world and get by working for a living. After learning about her childhood and her father's second marriage, we follow her through her first position as a day-governess then she manages to land a job with a distant relative, Kitty Mervyn, who wants a travelling maid. Although generally a self-centred person, Kitty brings out an affection in Jill that surprises her. For a brief time, the supposed class barriers between them fall away but the friendly relations can't last and events are soon taken out of Jill's control by malevolent forces.

The only way I can describe this book is that it's a complete and utter romp. Suspend your disbelief and jump in. Jill is a compelling character, from the way she organises her escape from home to her escapades on Corsica with Kitty. She conveys things to the reader with a strong sense of humour and her interactions with other characters are laced with sarcasm and insight. I particularly enjoyed her dealings with her first employer, a neurotic woman who is dreadfully worried about contamination and disease. Jill skilfully handles her in a scene that is both satisfying and beautiful to read. The book is essentially made up of episodes and I'd imagine it would be a good book to read aloud with many decent break points. I especially love how Jill lambastes the conventions of romance and sensation early in the book and then Dillwyn goes on to make use of them in a very tongue-in-cheek way. The sense of a connection between the reader and Jill/the reader and the author is strong in this book.

It's not all light-hearted though. The tone shifts abruptly towards the end of the book when Jill is involved in an accident which leads to a profound change in her outlook. Because the rest of the book has been so much like a romp, it's difficult to accept the gear shift, especially considering what it leads to. However, on reflection, the scenes are made all the more potent by what has come before and they are certainly memorable.

Jill is a book with many strands. The affection Jill feels for Kitty is an important aspect, governing her behaviour at times but I didn't get a full sense of why she felt so strongly for her until the Corsica incidents. It also deals with issues of class and gender as Jill passes as a maid and is promptly pursued by a valet who doesn't want to take 'no' for an answer. In a light-hearted way, it raises some interesting questions, some of which I suppose are as valid today as they were 130 years ago. Jill concludes one chapter with this which struck a chord with me on first reading and does so again now: 'Yet I myself told lies unhesitatingly whenever I found them convenient; so what right had I to complain of other people for doing the same?' This book doesn't read much like a Victorian novel and perhaps that's why I enjoyed it so much.

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