Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1813. 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...
The House in Quill Court is the fifth novel from Charlotte Betts, a historical fiction author whose books I always enjoy. You can be guaranteed to be taken back to points in history that you may know very little about but by the end you have a wealth of knowledge and insight into that given time period. Charlotte's books are rich in detail of time and place so much so that you literally feel you are a character in the story experiencing all the hustle and bustle and living and breathing the past. I had never read anything set during the Regency period even though I know love stories set in this era prove very popular. But this book is totally different to that and although it is a minor element of romance that is not the sole focus. Instead we have a story packed full of adventure and change for a family who experience innumerable highs and lows and will stop at nothing to claw back independence from a ruthless, evil person who is determined to expand his power and wealth through the cruellest of means.
What I really like about the writing of Charlotte Betts is that she never sticks to writing about the same time period. Each of her books have been vastly different from the other apart from The Painter's Apprentice which had a link to her début book The Apothecary's Daughter. I think moving time periods keeps your readers interested and engaged and also stops the author from becoming complacent. You can sense Charlotte gets great enjoyment from her writing and her research is impeccable. If the finer details are in place in the book it helps the story to come alive and grow full of vibrancy and characters that you are rooting for a successful outcome for. This book was vibrant not in a colourful sense although the descriptions of the interior decorating shop were rich and sumptuous but rather in the fact it showed all aspects of society at the time and served to highlight for me just how much the world and the way we live in it has changed so drastically in just over 200 years.
Our main female protagonist is Venetia Lovell, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood in 1813. She is living happily with her family in a beautiful cottage in the narrow cobbled streets of a coastal village in Kent. She loves nothing more than walking on the beach and enjoying the sea air but she also has a fondness for interior decoration and designing wall hangings. Venetia has a younger brother called Raffie and a lovable pug called Nero. Although her father spends a lot of time away from home travelling to further his business interests Venetia can see he is doing his best for his family and she accepts that she is left alone with her mother and brother. Life had been moving along smoothly for Venetia and her family until one evening comes a knock on the door that will change everything leaving their lives turned upside down.
Major Jack Chamberlaine brings the news no one wishes to hear Theo has died in London following an attack which led to his heart giving out. Of course the family are devastated but that is not to be the greatest shock of all, the life Venetia had known was all a lie. This comes out of nowhere and leaves everyone reeling but there is little time for mourning or contemplation as the Lovell's are forced to leave behind their cosy, homely cottage and move to London to Quill Court to be exact. Here they find the truth as to what Theo had been up to. I admired how Venetia handled such news and that blame was not heaped on her father, she had held him in such great respect and awe. Of course there was upset but she came to an understanding that many would find hard to do. Veneita steps into the role of leader of the family, she had long held a dream with her father of opening an interior design shop where the rich would come to purchase items for their lavish homes. Can she make this ideal a reality in spite of danger lurking at every turn?
Veneita was a character who had guts and determination aplenty and I suppose she was a woman way ahead of her times. She wasn't under any man's thumb - kept to the house and left to deal with child rearing, instead she had a vision and would stop at nothing and let no obstacle hinder her path until she had achieved her goal which would leave her family safe and secure. Right from the moment her family arrived in London to a whole new world of hustle and bustle which was in sharp contrast to the quiet, quaint life they had left Venetia was on a mission and wanted to see her dream become a reality. She was eager to see her plans come to fruition and make a go of the design shop. A shop which had not been seen before by many of the upper classes but if it took off Venetia and her family would be made for life. But the path to success never does run smooth and there are challenges and opposition aplenty.
I felt Charlotte Betts knew her time and place very well and had done endless research into all aspects of this book. The finer details were indepth and helped create an overall sense of the time and what the characters experienced. The London of 1814 was very different to the city that exists now and I felt through reading this story I learned so much. The street on which the shop is located had a real community feel about it and with persuasion they could pull together as a shadow did hang over the shopkeepers. I won't mention exactly what it is but I did think it helped bring the story even more to life. If the story had just a sole focus of Venetia setting up the shop it would have been boring but having barriers and danger seemingly lurking at every corner added that extra bit of spice and complexity to the story which made it that extra special. All the historical aspects were riveting and I found it fascinating to learn of all the different shops as everything can often be found under one roof these days. People had to go various shops to get what they wanted and Venetia hoped her shop would add something unique and different to what was already there. Unfortunately other forces were at work and there was a sinister undertone to the story which I believe was necessary as life in the big city at that time was tough for everybody.
Charlotte Betts highlighted to brilliant effect the differences between the upper and lower classes of that time. Those at the top had a good life with servants at their beck and call and money appeared to be no object when it came to decorating their homes. If they didn't have that desire to keep up appearances Venetia wouldn't have had any business. But it was the inclusion of Venetia's servant Kitty that was a real bonus to this story as she gave us an insight into the more seedier aspects of life in a big city. How things weren't all a bed of roses for everybody and how there was an underworld thriving with hands in every pie. Kitty herself was naive when leaving Kent, she believed the streets of London were paved with gold and it would be easy to make one's fortune. But she soon realised that couldn't be further from the truth as she experienced the highest of highs but also the most harrowing of lows. I did enjoy Kitty as a character and as the story developed she played a vital role. I'd love to say she was fiercely independent but I did feel she hung onto the coat tails of others until she was forced through circumstances to grow up and face realities and use her initiative to resolve a hideous situation. In a way I understood Kitty more so than Venetia and enjoyed her story more but that's not to say I disliked Venetia as she had so many admirable qualities.
The book was moving along at a steady pace but things were really ramped up towards the end and you needed to keep your wits about you to keep track of everything going on but I loved every minute of it. There was real adventure and a sense of working together, sort of like good overcoming evil and triumphing in the face of adversity. No one one was going to let terror, danger, sheer grid and evilness rule in any circumstances no matter what hurt and destruction had to be undertaken first. The House in Quill Court is not my favourite novel from Charlotte Betts but I still thought it was a really good read. The pace was frantic towards the end and almost became like an action adventure novel.
I liked how the focus of this book wasn't all about love and romance and finding the ideal man and going through courtships etc. Other Regency books have dealt with that time and time again. Yes we have a smidgen of romance thrown in that is obvious but it wasn't the entire focus for the novel as it would have been too routine and formulaic. Instead Charlotte Betts concentrated on bringing the period to life in an easy yet exciting way that would keep her readers keen to discover the truth in more ways than one. There were twists and turns aplenty in the final chapters and I had a niggling suspicion surrounding one thing but was left open mouthed when the final outcome was revealed but in a real good way as I love the wool being pulled over my eyes. There is a short story called Christmas at Quill Court and although it doesn't follow the same characters I would be interested to read it as I believe Charlotte has done an excellent job with this story and as always has left me looking forward to what time and place we shall visit next.
I'd like to thank Clara at Little Brown for sending me a copy of The House in Quill Court and Emma for reviewing it for the blog.