Although I love historical fiction, sometimes anachronisms slip in and ruin the mood for me. This happened recently in a detective novel that took place in the 1930s but featured such concepts as “journaling” and had the main character wearing a backpack to school. I threw the book aside and went on to something else. Bywater’s Paula Martinac wouldn’t have made such a misstep. Her latest, Dear Miss Cushman, is a completely engaging and thoroughly researched trip into 1850s Manhattan that takes time to get the details right.
Eighteen-year-old Georgiana Cartwright is the daughter of an established actor who ends up drunk and disorderly in front of an audience and leaves town in disgrace, bringing shame upon the family–especially difficult since Georgiana has aspirations to the stage herself. She wants to play men’s roles (“breeches parts”) like her heroine, Charlotte Cushman. Hiding her true identity, Georgie is hired as a supporting actress by a stock company, and it appears all her dreams will come true until she’s sexually harassed by a member of the company. Nevertheless, she gets an opportunity to play Shakespeare as a man. But then her father shows up and her true identity is revealed, endangering her goals–including a relationship with Clementine, a budding writer also in the stock company.
As with most romances, the conclusion is nearly foregone, but the real delight of the book is how Martinac gets us there. And although the romance is important here, it’s not primary. Georgie is career-oriented, and she never lets anyone forget that. Her triumphs over the male-dominated industry get the well-deserved focus, and Martinac squeezes every last relatable drop out of these successes. She has a real gift for putting the reader right in the middle of the situation and letting the variables play themselves out, never seeming contrived or manipulated from above.
She also has a gift for creating strong, interesting characters to work through those situations. Georgie is of a piece with Gen Rider in last year’s Testimony – a woman who knows exactly who she is, what she wants, and how to accomplish that. The difference between the two is that Professor Rider, being accused of sexual improprieties with a student, is put in a defensive position whereas Georgie operates from a position of strength at the box office. Georgie has moments where she’s vulnerable, especially with Clementine, but her self-reliance always triumphs.
And then we have the historical aspect, which is as rich, detailed, and atmospheric as Testimony’s mid-Fifties was tense and claustrophobic. Again, Martinac has a knack for drawing together telling historical details to form a whole in which you can lose yourself. She makes it look easy, a sure indicator that it’s not.
Dear Miss Cushman is an absolute delight, parading its strong characters through an eminently relatable plot and basking in your applause. Put your hands together for this one, folks.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler