There’s something magical about startlingly-colored, shiny covers. They can transform indifference toward a story into an enthusiastic hunger to read whatever is found between their pages. Such was my case with Michaela MacColl’s Prisoners in the Palace: A Novel of Intrigue and Romance.
The novel’s subtitle, “A Novel of Intrigue and Romance,” is what initially turned me off from the story. It suggested that the book was going to be full of sensational love and scandal, like a bad romance, a genre that I can’t stand. Luckily its eye-catching cover came along, and I was pleased to find that it was anything but what I expected. Though love and scandal do appear, Prisoners in the Palace is more a story of class struggle, political manipulation, and, unexpectedly, sneaky pre-Victorian espionage.
Prisoners in the Palace tells the story of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria before she became Queen, when she was a petulant teenage princess trapped in Kensington Palace with nearly every person around her scheming to use her future crown to their advantage. The main character in the story, though, is Victoria’s personal maid, Miss Liza Hastings. Once the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, Liza is ripped from her privileged rank when her parents die in a sudden carriage accident. She is left with almost nothing to live on. Desperation leads her to apply for the recently-vacated position as the princess’ maid, and her acquiring the position, though a major victory in itself, is only the beginning of further troubles for her.
Liza learns quickly that she’s been hired not only as a maid, but a spy for one of the house ladies. By some clever tricks of her own, she soon finds herself spying rather successfully for multiple people in and out of the Palace, Princess Victoria included. All the suspense in the story isn’t limited to Liza’s spy adventures, though. Liza herself experiences some rather powerful stresses that tug at readers’ sympathies. Her brutal transition from privileged young woman to domestic servant comes with sharp personal pains, inflicted mostly by her society’s strong respect for rank. Because of this social rigidity, she can’t speak out when a high-ranking man of the Palace makes uncomfortable advances at her, advances that caused the last maid in her position to be ousted—pregnant—without a letter of recommendation. She can hardly speak out about anything important without her job being threatened. She even has to keep simple talents of hers secret to avoid blowing her cover and losing her job. Her position is one where even the slightest misstep could mean destitution on the unforgiving streets of London—and readers see as much of the city’s poor as they do its glamorous. It’s nothing that we want Liza to be condemned to.
That’s one of the elements that make this book such a great read. The author doesn’t show just one face of pre-Victorian England. She shows it all in quick, meaningful clarity, and she does it without writing a textbook-in-novel-form. All of her facts are well-placed and well-spaced, so that the reader is never overwhelmed with historical background. It’s all placed exactly where it needs to be, and because of this the story’s momentum never slows down.
Because of this, I read over half of this book in a single sitting. The last few chapters, however, I put off for as long as possible. I was slow to read these, not because they were boring, but because finishing them would mean that I’d be leaving behind one of the most entertaining books that I’ve read this year. There are few other books worthy of such praise.
Readers who like Prisoners in the Palace might also like the Montmorency series by Eleanor Updale.