I read Margaret Cavendish's writing for the first time recently and, while I enjoyed its creativity, vigour and sheer oddity, I longed to get a taste of what day to day life would have really been like for an intelligent female writer of the 17th century. Danielle Dutton partly answered this in her take on Cavendish's life in her recent exquisite novel “Margaret the First”. Now Anna-Marie Crowhurst has imagined the dramatic life of a female playwright named Ursula who narrates her own story from her birth in 1664 to the beginning of her writing career. She gives a richly detailed sense of what life would have been like for a privileged upperclass girl growing up on a rural estate. Amidst her narrative we're also given various documents including sketches of plays, letters, lists and notes which not only bring her story to life but chart the evolution of her creative process in becoming a writer.
Ursula's father educates her from an early age sparking her interests in astrology and literature. Though her creativity was fostered in this protected environment, she quickly finds it's scorned by the larger world when she's forced to enter a marriage with a wealthy nobleman and become a pious lady. Ursula has a highly romantic sensibility and she has a hard reckoning with the passion of love and sex, but this isn't a story about a young woman finding the right man. It's more about the development of Ursula's creative talent for translating the lives and issues of her day into drama. Gradually she learns how real life can be folded into fictional dramatic works in such a way that it entertains and reflects back to people their own prejudices as well as their humanity. She also discovers theatre is a collaborative hive where the actors, writers and producers all interpret and transform the playwright's text into become a live show. Opportunities for women to creatively express themselves were obviously severely limited in this era but Ursula finds a way to testify to her own experience and that of the women of her time.
Crowhurst's writing has a wonderful lightness to it. A lot of literary fiction can be so gloomy when confronting serious subjects, but “The Illumination of Ursula Flight” is extremely engaging in how it seriously shows the plight of a creative woman in this time and the challenges she faces without getting bogged down in misery. The story evocatively comes to life in the details of the smells and sights of what life was like in this period from one character who refuses to have a rotten tooth extracted to the messy streets of London covered in refuse. She also gives a keen sense of the women's fashion as well as the politics of the Stuart period rumbling in the background. Most of all I became enamoured with Ursula's character and became wrapped up in following her journey. This historical novel is impressively imaginative, clever and fun in the way it brings her to life and shows the development of her artistic sensibility.