I have no idea what possessed Mr. Rosen to combine Twelfth Night
and The Importance of Being Earnest
and retcon them to steampunk Victorian London, but I thank him heartily for doing so.
It has been a few years since I saw Twelfth Night
and almost as long since reading The Importance of Being Earnest
, but I remember enough of the plot that certain sections of this book had me incoherent with laughter.
Violet Adams, Victorian-era scientist, longs to attend Illyria Academy, which is a strictly male-dominated sphere. Although Oxford and Cambridge have allowed women to sit in on classes, and despite noted scientist Ada Lovelace's patronage of the school, only five boys per year are allowed entry to Illyria's hallowed halls. In order to obtain the scientific education that Violet knows she deserves, she and her twin brother, Ashton, devise a scheme to disguise Viola as "Ashton" for her first year's entry into the school. At the end of the year, Violet vows to reveal her true gender and risk punishment on her own terms.
However, it is much easier to make these plans before she meets Earnest, Duke of Illyria, and his astoundingly clever young ward, Cecily. Violet respects the duke as she gets to know him, even as she resents his misapprehensions on women's intelligence. As for Cecily, she also wishes to be a scientist in her own right due to her astounding talents with chemical composition.
While threats of blackmail and a plot to overthrow the English monarchy begins beneath Illyria's walls, Cecily and the duke both find themselves drawn to young Aston -- the duke because Ashton reminds him of Violet, whom he met once, and Cecily because Ashton is the only man she has ever known to take her scientific endeavors more seriously than her pretty face -- resulting in a comedy of errors roughly proportional to your standard airship.
The slightly mystic realm of steampunk is a great place to situate this story. Shakespeare called upon magic and faeries even in some of his histories and tragedies (Henry IV, for example), so it seems fairly natural for this iteration of his and Wilde's characters to pursue the higher calling of Science. There are plenty of gears for those of us who pay attention to such things, and they work themselves into the plot with clockwork precision. The gears that power Illyria have further power to inspire and infuriate, and ghostlike invisible cats roam the basement.
Even as Violet embraces the freedoms granted by her male guise, she begins to truly appreciate the fact that she is a woman, and able to wear comparatively more comfortable skirts and garbs, even if they do have bustles. Women of all types show up in this novel: Ada Lovelace is a tough-talking classy dame who smokes cigars and hustles poker, Cecily is demure yet brilliant, and Miriam embraces the freedoms of widowhood while remaining loyal to her mistress. Enterprising housekeepers and actresses are every bit as clever as the men of genius who remain embroiled in their own affairs (and projects) at the castle on the hill.
The assorted relationships, which shift and ebb on the arc of scientific progress, make sense and are exquisitely timed.
I couldn't put this book down. It made me laugh and cringe at times, such as the biological experiments that yield bizarre results. But I loved those results, such as the trash-talking Oscar, the unnecessarily practical pram, and the magnificent Pallus. Rosen throws in a dash of Jeckyll and Hyde and a few references to Wilde the person, and the result is fabulous.
Verdict: refreshing, fun, and doesn't take itself too seriously. Way to go!