Reviewed by Danielle.
The beautiful and elegant city of Vienna serves as the backdrop to Margaret Leroy’s engaging historical novel The English Girl. While the city is known for its elegance and sophistication, it’s architectural beauty and atmospheric coffeehouse culture, it’s the dark days of the 1930s leading up to the beginning of WWII and Germany’s annexation of Austria that hover in the background. It’s to this city filled with so many paradoxes that young Stella Whittaker comes from England to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. Here she will find both love and heartache.
When Stella is offered the chance to study music at a prestigious school, it’s an opportunity that can’t be passed up. Despite her youth, she’s only seventeen, she’s invited to live with friends of her mother and embark on a course of study.Rainer and Marthe Krause welcome Stella into their home in exchange for English lessons for their son, Lukas. It’s a perfect situation which allows Stella enough free time to explore the city as well as get on with her studies.
There is something mysterious about the Krause household, however. Marthe is an average Viennese housewife and Rainer formidable both in his work and political views, but he shares a love of music with Stella which shows his more amiable side. The pair seems typical of any middle class Viennese family, yet there are secretive whispers of a former nanny let go with no apparent reason and connections between Rainer and other city officials whose leanings towards Nazi Germany’s ideological beliefs become more and more worrisome as the story progresses.
Stella arrives in Vienna with a vivacity and precociousness that is endearing but with an equal measure of naivety. She falls in love with the city at the same time she falls in love with a young man she meets in a museum.
“I peer through the tram window, wide-eyed. There are great baroque palaces, ornate with cherubs, laurel wreaths, flowers; statues of rearing horses and muscular men; fountains. It’s a fast, fresh days, and the spray from the fountains is flung exuberantly high. The sky is a deep, tender blue, the tramlines glisten like silver, the leaves of the lindens along the Ring are touched with amber and gold. In the lavish autumn sunlight, Vienna seems to flaunt herself like a beautiful woman who knows she holds everyone’s gaze.”
Harri Reznik is a student of psychoanalysis who works in a local psychiatric hospital. He also happens to be Jewish. Neither bit of information gives Stella pause despite the growing concern over the changing atmosphere of the city and its narrow attitudes and sometimes violent behavior by residents towards Jews. A friend of Stella’s calls Vienna the ‘City of Dreams’ and asks her what her dreams are. In her youthful exuberance she has nothing but good words and feelings towards the city and refuses to believe anything remiss is happening. But dreams soon turn to nightmares.
Perhaps it’s Stella’s conservative upbringing, or the fact that she believes the Krauses to be good friends of her mother and so without blemish. She is always cheerful and has a positive attitude. And she is a young woman in love. In love with the city and her music and especially with Harri. And he seems equally smitten with her. His family welcomes her into their home. Yet something about her situation causes her to keep Harri and her growing relationship with him secret from the Krauses, especially Rainer. There is something about Rainer that she finds both compelling but also somewhat frightening. His interest in her is nothing but proper yet she knows there is something more to him that she doesn’t quite understand.
Vienna’s sophisticated elegance is hiding something dark and disturbing. Something Stella doesn’t choose to see, until it’s too late. Her world, and Harri’s world come crumbling down and everything romantic and vibrant takes on a darker hue. Stella has no choice but to grow up quickly. Her naivety is lost and what replaces it is a strength she didn’t know she had.
There is a beauty and lushness to this story which is filled with vivid descriptions of a city at once extraordinary and frightening. Margaret Leroy captures well this moment in time when hope is all but lost for the ordinary people of Vienna. The heroine may be a very young woman at the outset, but she grows and changes and truly becomes a heroine. This is no common garden variety historical romance. There are many romantic elements to the story both in the presentation of place and the relationship between Stella and Harri, but it is also bittersweet. A romance for grown-ups perhaps.
If you enjoy a literary sojourn to Vienna, I can heartily recommend the series of mysteries set in turn of the century Vienna by Frank Tallis. Be prepared, however, to be enticed by the culinary temptations of the city—the characters transact much of their business in Viennese coffeehouses. Mary Stewart’s novel of romantic suspense Airs Above Ground is set in the Austrian countryside. War stories abound, but if you’re looking for a more factual slant you might try Muriel Gardiner’s Code Name” Mary” about the Austrian underground or The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Beer about how one Jewish woman managed to stay hidden in Vienna in plain sight.
Danielle blogs at A Work in Progress and was fortunate enough to have traveled to Vienna and can attest to the beauty and elegance to the city. Happily she visited it under much pleasanter circumstances.
Margaret Leroy, The English Girl (Sphere: London, 2013). 9780751551778, 422pp, trade paperback.