One of the most auspicious debuts of recent years, Wesley Stace's Misfortune
follows the rise, fall, and triumphant return of Rose Old, a foundling rescued from a London garbage heap in 1820 by the richest man in Britain. Lord Geoffroy Loveall, whose character has been shaped by perpetual mourning for a sister who died in childhood, seizes on the infant as a replacement for his beloved sister. With the help of trusted servants, he arranges for the child to be lovingly brought up at his ancestral mansion, Loveall Hall--to all appearances, his biological daughter and unhoped-for heir. No matter that the baby is not a girl.
The story thus far is so engaging, and the details of Rose's childhood so playfully rendered (when she was first brought to Loveall Hall, the staff of 250 included a servant whose sole responsibility was to iron newspapers before their second reading), that it is with reluctance that the reader meets the inevitable rude, scheming relatives whose plotting will lead to the "misfortune" of the title. Luckily, Stace (the given name of the musician John Wesley Harding) takes too much delight in Rose to dump her back on the garbage heap, or at least not for long. The cross-dressing love child of Great Expectations and A. S. Byatt's Possession, Misfortune will find you breathlessly tracking the movements of its principal players, and applauding the most ridiculous twists of fate. --Regina Marler
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Born in Hastings and educated at Cambridge, Wesley Stace is also known as the musician John Wesley Harding. Musical influences are on display in his gender-bending debut novel, Misfortune, a historical tale set in 19th-Century England about an abandoned boy raised as a girl. Read on to listen to three original songs inspired by the book.
A Message from Wesley Stace
Songs weave their way throughout Misfortune--some are ballads, crucial to the plot and written by one of the characters, others are traditional songs sung at various points of the narrative, others are folk songs from a collection in the Octagonal Library of Love Hall, the home of the central family.
Songs aren't anything if they aren't sung, so I decided to match melodies and words and record some of them. I picked these because they were the first two. There will be a full record of the songs of Misfortune, performed by The Love Hall Tryst (myself, Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor, and Brian Lohmann) which will be released by Appleseed Recordings later this year. --Wesley Stace
From Chapter One: "For a moment, the laundress was unaware that there was anyone beneath. She began to sing as she worked and this is what finally breathed life into Pharaoh again. It was one of the old songs, his favourite of the many she sang: the story of Lambkin the builder who tortures Lord Murray's family when his note is refused. The purity of Annie's voice contrasted starkly with the words of her song and the street below:
"'Where is the heir of this house?' said Lambkin:
'Asleep in his cradle,' the false nurse said to him.
And he pricked that baby all over with a pin,
While the nurse held a basin for the blood to run in."
She had sung it so many times as a lullaby that the horror of the story was somehow soothing."
Listen to "Lambkin"
Listen to "Lord Lovel"
From Chapter Two: "Loveall recalled a previous Lord Loveall and the song that bore his name, and he sang it softly to the baby. This ancestor had deferred his marriage for seven years while he went travelling. He returned after only twelve months, but as he rode home, he heard the church bells ringing, "for Nancy Bell who died for a discourteous squire." He died too of grief, as he gazed on her corpse lying in its coffin, and was buried next to her. From her heart grew a red rose and from his heart a briar:
"They grew and grew to the church steeple
Till they could grow no higher
And he pricked that baby all over with a pin,
And there entwined in a true lovers knot
For true lovers to admire."
"The Ballad of Miss Fortune"
"Miss Fortune" is the song from which came the original idea for Misfortune. The Ballad of Miss Fortune is a re-recording of this song from John Wesley Harding's album, Awake.
Listen to "The Ballad of Miss Fortune"
Music from John Wesley Harding
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From Publishers Weekly
This gender-bending romp about a boy raised as a girl in 19th-century England--penned by musician John Wesley Harding, writing here under his real name--more than lives up to the hype it will surely, ahem, engender. On a night in 1820, effeminate and ineffective (at least according to his mother) Lord Geoffroy Loveall, happens upon a baby abandoned in a trash heap. He brings it home to Love Hall, the grand estate that he is set to inherit, and pronounces the baby his daughter and heir. There's just one problem: the baby is a boy. Geoffroy refuses to accept this fact, but the happy news causes his ailing mother to die on the spot. The baby--named Rose--is raised as a cosseted and doted-on proper young lady, and the legitimate heir, a ruse that works beautifully until Rose begins to wonder about the facts of life: why, for example, does she suddenly feel the urge to pee standing up, like her friend Stephen, rather than squatting like his lovely sister, Sarah? Adolescence (and a few whiskers) only causes further confusion--as does the word "BOY," which begins to ominously appear around the estate. Eventually, Rose's cover is blown, and the scandal prompts several sets of greedy relatives to descend, claiming the Loveall inheritance as their own. There's a huge cast of characters, plot twists aplenty, loads of historical detail (including original Victorian ballads) and a satisfying, tied-together ending that also, in two epilogues, manages to offer up a poignant take on historical interpretation. Yet this lengthy and involved tale makes for speedy reading. Best of all, Rose's original narrative voice is engaging from the get-go: smart, funny, observant, and even hip.
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