Love’s Shadow is the first novel in Ada Leverson’s “Little Ottleys” trilogy. It it a classic comedy of manners, with the sedate and self-sufficient Edith Ottley and her vain, pathetic hypochondriac husband Bruce forming the backbone of a group of acquaintances that will chase after each other until nicely wrapping up the package with multiple happy marriages.
Leverson was funny enough to be called a wit by the likes of Oscar Wilde, and the novel lives up to the expectations that sort of praise generates. The opening description of Hyacinth, Edith Ottley’s beautiful, single, heiress friend (who has a guardian, “like a book”):
Like all really uncommon beauties, Hyacinth could only be adequately described by the most hackneyed phrases. Her eyes were authentically sapphire-coloured; brilliant, frank eyes, with a subtle mischief in them, softened by the most conciliating long eyelashes. Then, her mouth was really shaped like a Cupid’s bow, and her teeth were dazzling; also she had a wealth of dense, soft, brown hair and a tall, sylph-like, slimly rounded figure. Her features were delicately regular, and her hands and feet perfection. …So many artistic young men had told her she was like La Gioconda, that when she first saw the original in the Louvre she was so disappointed that she thought she would never smile again.
And here Hyacinth’s character is all set up. Love’s Shadow is full of the type of flat but vibrating characters that are beloved despite their lack of (overrated) “roundness.” Bruce Ottley is an utterly ridiculous man and no match for his wife; Sir Charles Cannon is the quintessential guardian-in-love-with-his-ward (like a book!) married to a woman best described as “upholstered”; Hyacinth is a floating fairy goddess with a guardian angel in the trusty and highly eccentric Anne Yeo, her companion.
Perhaps it is somewhat disturbing how easy it is to laugh at Bruce Ottley and his helplessness, self-centeredness, and seriously overblown sense of importance, considering the way he treats his wife and the way she is consigned to live. If any of the characters is a bit of a mystery, it’s Edith, but it would be better to say that she’s so sensible it only seems mysterious that she can manage it. She knows she has him outclassed in every way and can take the upper hand whenever she needs it—without his noticing, of course.
While not reaching the level of Wilde or my personal go-to for comic fiction, P.G. Wodehouse, Love’s Shadow is completely charming and very aptly embodied by the bubblegum-pink cover on the new Bloomsbury Group edition. I love the concept of that series—“a new library of books from the early twentieth century chosen by readers for readers”—and am glad to have found Leverson this way.
The FTC, deeming a subjective evaluation of a work of art an endorsement, compels me to disclose that Bloomsbury gave me a copy of their new edition of Love’s Shadow.