Bird of Paradise by Ada Leverson

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Reviewed by Harriet

Bertha – Mrs Percy Kellynch – was known as a beauty. She was indeed improbably pretty, small, plump and very fair, with soft golden hair that was silky and yet fluffy, perfectly regular features, and a kind of infantine sweetness, combined with an almost incredible cleverness that was curious and fascinating. She was type remote equally from the fashion-plate and the suffragette, and was so physically attractive that one could hardly be near her without longing to put out a finger and touch her soft, fair face or her soft hair; as one would touch a kitten or a pretty child.

Bertha – the bird of paradise of the title – is central to the plot of Ada Leverson’s delightful 1914 novel. But there are two more women characters, on whose lives she has profound effects even if she is not always conscious she is doing so. One is Madeline Irwin, ‘a modern looking girl’, very much in love with the erudite Rupert Denison, who sadly takes more pleasure in educating her than in paying her the sort of attentions she craves. Madeline is very inexperienced and naive, and frequently turns to Bertha for advice. Bertha finds Rupert dull, but promises she will help Madeline all she can. 

The other woman is Mary Hillier, who has a very different attitude to Bertha – in fact she quietly loathes her. Or in fact not all that quietly. And she has her reasons. For Mary is married to Nigel, who had met the beautiful Bertha when she was eighteen and fallen immediately in love. Indeed, ‘the attraction had been sudden, violent and mutual’, and the couple had hoped to marry, though neither of them had any money.   But family pressure, and the fact that Mary, a very wealthy young woman, showed an interest in him, had caused Nigel to break with Bertha and make a marriage based on economic necessity rather then love. He regretted this almost at once, and ‘not being the type who trouble to conceal their feelings in domestic life’, made sure that Mary knew he believed he had made a terrible mistake. And, though Bertha has settled down to a happy married life with the handsome but rather dull Percy, Nigel visits her regularly, hoping perhaps to entice her away from her husband. Sadly, he is one of those men ‘ who are absolutely incapable of of being really in love with with anyone who belongs to them’. 

Leverson – a close friend of Oscar Wilde – has been described as ‘a distant descendent of Jane Austen’, and it’s not hard to see why. In all her six novels, of which this is the fifth, her writing sparkles with wit but is also very perceptive of human relationships and interactions. Take Mary, who could easily be a character nobody would like. Her attachment to Nigel is so intense that she neglects her two young children (well, leaves them in the care of their nanny) in her efforts to please the husband who clearly doesn’t care two pins for her. Her clinginess makes the situation worse – when he’s out on his own at night, a regular occurrence, she sits by the window late into the night watching for him to come home. She is furiously jealous of Bertha, and does her best to break Nigel of his attachment to her, with no success. Leverson, though, is sympathetic:

A woman’s jealousy of another women is always sufficiently dreadful, but when the object of jealousy is hers by legal right, when the sense of personal property is added to it, then it is one of the most terrible and unreasonable things in nature.

It’s hard to love Mary, but also impossible not to feel sorry for her. 

There are many entertaining characters and episodes in this charming social satire – I was particularly taken with twelve-year-old Clifford, Percy’s much younger brother, who writes poems to his friend Cissy’s mother:

Cissy was in love with Clifford, but Clifford was in love with her mother. This simple nursery tragedy may sound strange, but as a matter of fact it is the kind of thing that happens every day. Similar complications are to be found in almost every schoolroom.

I was also very taken with another very minor character, Lady Gertrude Münster, ‘a clever, glib, battered elderly woman, who, since her husband had been at the Embassy in Vienna, had assumed a sight foreign accent; it was meant to be Austrian but sounded Scotch’.

I romped through this book with great enjoyment – it’s no wonder that Wilde and Leverson got on so well. They must have constantly made each other laugh. Well done to Mike Walmer for bringing out this attractive reprint. 

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Harriet is one of the founders, and a co-editor, of Shiny New Books.

Ada Leverson, Bird of Paradise (Mike Walker, 2022). 978-0645244083, 314pp., paperback original.

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1 comment

  1. Thanks so much Harriet and Shiny – grateful for the coverage. Clifford is a brilliant character, I agree……

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