The Illumination of Ursula Flight is a largely lighthearted coming-of-age historical novel set in 1670s/1680s England and centres on the life (from birth to adulthood) of Ursula Flight. The book begins with a style often used by novels of the 17th century and made me immediately think of Daniel Defoe’s works. This tale is told in the first person by Ursula, a girl who is born into a well-to-do family. Her father gives her a thorough education (which was rare for girls at this time). She takes a keen interest in learning and has a talent for playwriting from a young age. Marriage, loss, love, and adversity bring her towards maturity and self-realisation.
Let’s take a moment to gaze upon the cover – which is gorgeous. I love the seventeenth century-style lady in the bubble on the top left. The other three circles contain images of important parts of Ursula’s story.
In my opinion, the real magic in Crowhurst’s writing is that she employs the structure of Restoration play dialogue as the format for some of her scenes. The result is brilliant and charming – it really worked. Indeed, I’m not ashamed to say I’m a bit envious – I wish I’d thought of doing this myself in my books!
A great deal of the story I found quite often funny:
There’s a bump on my noggin as big as an artichoke and I had a mustard plaster for it, which made me sneeze.
I was enthralled by the book throughout, but, for me, it peaked around 75% through, which was the most moving part (I guess that’s because I’m such a romantic). All the peripheral characters, such as Mary, Grisella, Lord Tyringham, Samuel, et al were well-made and I could visualise them clearly. Ursula herself is quite likeable – she’s both very intelligent and quite silly sometimes.
I’m always concerned when reading a work set in the seventeenth century because so often modern authors end up falling into the trap of presentism. Largely, the majority of the book stays very much in keeping with the values of the time, which I found a relief. Women such as Aphra Behn and Margaret Cavendish, although talented women writers (and more!), were outliers in their time and most decidedly not the norm. I mention this because I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the ending, which I felt had a rather jarringly modern feminist message of “career first/I don’t need a man”. Other readers will undoubtedly disagree with me, and to each their own. This aside, the book as a whole was so enjoyable that this was a minor point for me.
The plot and the characters are well-formed, her research into this period in history is clear and I can tell she has done a great deal of work. I am staggered by the fact that this is Crowhurst’s debut work, for it is beautifully written, witty, and lively. I very much hope she continues to write. She certainly has a fan here.
TSCL rating: 5/5