Book #27

The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Born on the night of an ill-auguring comet just before Charles II's Restoration, Ursula Flight has a difficult future written in the stars.

Against the custom of the age she begins an education with her father, who fosters in her a love of reading, writing and astrology.

Following a surprise meeting with an actress, Ursula yearns for the theatre and thus begins her quest to become a playwright despite scoundrels, bounders, bad luck and heartbreak.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight has everything I love about historical fiction - rebellious women, social commentary, and characters with an unnerving desire to defy the norm. We initially see our protagonist, Ursula, as an inquisitive and turbulent child, and we grow with her through the pages as she experiences marriage, and becomes a woman she was never meant to be.

I loved the form here. One moment you’re reading a chapter of prose, then you’re thrust into a series of letters, then plays, then lists, all from Ursula’s pen. It’s an effective tool to allow us deeper into Ursula’s inner mind - something which can’t be as successfully achieved with mere first-person narrative. It felt inherently personal, as though Ursula were corresponding with us directly, or as though we’d found a secret chest filled with papers. A masterstroke from Crowhurst.

And yet, there was something here I didn’t quite like, something flat and unengaging. We had a lot of Ursula, yet there were many piquing characters here who didn’t seem to have their moment. Some further exploration into them could have really fleshed things out for me. I also felt the ending was a bit too rushed, a bit too perfect and a bit too predictable. We know she’s in the minority - how many women had (and indeed, still have) miserable lives, never achieving their dreams? It was just all tied up too nicely for me, but that’s purely a personal preference.

Despite my minor misgivings, there are some gorgeous messages here about breaking free, about becoming the person you want to be, and about refusing to conform to society’s expectations of you. It’s easy to feel that none of us would fare well in the 1600s; I certainly like to think I’d rebel just like Ursula. But we’re products of our time - if society said so, I wonder if I would just sit down, shut up, marry the old man and spend my years playing the lute for him.