Kitty Burns Florey is probably best known for her 2009 study of penmanship, “Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.” In her new novel, she takes as her protagonist Charles Cooper, a 28-year-old writing master at a New England business school in the 1850s. When the book begins, Cooper has been a widower for four years, having lost his wife and baby boy in a terrible fire. Racked with sorrow and guilt, he is tethered to their memory — until, one afternoon in New Haven, he glimpses a beautiful young woman with red hair in the company of a slightly older female companion dressed all in black.
Before long, the redheaded Miss Lily Prescott has commissioned Cooper to create an elegant birth certificate for a baby girl named Prudence Anne Prescott. The child, he realizes, must be hers, yet she is definitely neither married nor widowed. No matter: There is a quiet but immediate attraction between this 19th-century “single mother” and the sensitive writing master.
Cooper sets to work immediately on the baby’s certificate:
“He dipped his pen into the inkwell. The serene silent world that was created when he was writing settled around him. Here was something he did well, with ease, and as he formed the letters — the floating tails of the P, the generous curves of the E — he became oblivious to everything except the relation of line to loop, angle to curve.”
At this point, Chapter 1 — related in the third person and focused on Cooper — ends, and Chapter 2 begins with Lily Prescott’s diary entries. (This alternation in point of view continues throughout the novel.) In her own voice, Lily gradually reveals that her father is a noted American painter long resident in Rome, that she had been infatuated with a handsome young stableman who is now dead and that the duenna-like woman in black is her former lover’s sister Elena, whom she dislikes. Disowned by her outraged father, Lily has returned to New Haven with the baby she adores. She is clearly a spirited young woman, but she is obviously very lonely, too.
To pass the time, she reads Jane Austen, Dickens and even “Piazza Tales,” just out from Herman Melville, though it is disappointing that none of its stories actually feature Italian piazzas. But she and Elena are both amused by “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” A scrivener is rather similar to a writing master, after all, and she hasn’t quite forgotten that quietly attractive Mr. Cooper. Perhaps he could give her calligraphy lessons as a way of filling the empty days?
So far, this might be the beginning of a sweet romantic novel. But before long, Florey starts to complicate her plot: In nearby Hamden, the pretty Letitia Trout is found bludgeoned to death with a poker. By whom? And why? Lily remembers that she once visited the girl’s home when her father was commissioned to paint a picture of its main pond. Cooper’s in-laws were close to the parents.
Meanwhile, Florey introduces us to a growing range of characters, nearly all of whom have found woe in marriage and family life. Two families have lost beloved daughters to violent deaths; Cooper’s mother once spent long periods in a mental hospital and is now separated from his ailing shopkeeper father; and his sister Tamsin, living in Ohio, keeps writing strangely formal letters home that don’t say much about her married life.
Because the police believe a passing tramp killed Letitia, her father hires a private investigator named Harold Hopkins Milgrim, Esq. Milgrim very nearly steals the show: He’s a charming scion of a wealthy New Haven family, an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, a bit disheveled and notoriously unpunctual. Is he, in fact, behind his Peter Wimsey-style whimsy, actually a brilliant sleuth? Very modern, he employs a young Irish girl named Maud Mullen as his secretary and office manager. As Milgrim tells Cooper, who is soon to become his “assistant”:
“So long as they are not wedded to a voluminosity of skirts, I am convinced that employing women as secretaries is intensely logical. Women are born to nurture, to take care of things, to spread an atmosphere of sweetness and light. I think no one can dispute that — and where are those qualities more welcome than in an office like mine? But women are also, as any rational man cannot help but be aware, highly intelligent beings whose brilliance is usually squandered on tending to the needs of home and children.”
When Cooper responds that his cousin Sarah manages his father’s general store and is very content doing so, Milgrim replies: “Good for Cousin Sarah! So many wives and mothers in this world, but so few contented and efficient managers of general stores.”
Gradually, it grows clear that “The Writing Master” isn’t just a mystery or a romance; it’s a study of family unhappiness, mental illness and, above all, the condition of women in mid-19th-century America. For all the lightness of tone, it is filled with considerable darkness, and there is no assurance that all will end happily. But the book is chockablock with fascinating characters, especially the women, ranging from the lovely Lily to the winsome and shrewd Miss Mullen to the tough-minded Tamsin to the mysterious Elena to Cooper’s own mother.
But who murdered Letitia Trout, and why? And what will happen to Lily and Baby Prudence? Will the writing master find happiness?
Those are just the sort of questions one asks of a good summer book. But there are, naturally, surprises in store, and Florey’s more somber concerns are never far out of mind, even as the narrative loops and plot swirls of “The Writing Master” are finally knotted together.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.