THE BISHOP'S DAUGHTER has all the trappings of a novel from an earlier age. It includes a lengthy subtitle; a claim that the damaged manuscript was mailed mysteriously to its "editor," Ray Russell; an opening note and an afterword to speculate on and explain its contents; even occasional learned footnotes. Though its narrative voice is generally brisk, simple, and unobtrusive, it employs a dated diction and syntax and has a familiar tone, that of a 19th-century heroine who is bruised, wronged, and in desperate peril in a terribly unfair world.
From its earliest pages the novel is strewn with astonishingly familiar characters, Jane Austen, Charles Lamb, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Walter Scott, even the massive and lubricious Prince of Wales, who in the year of its major action--1811--has been made regent in place of George III. The first third of the novel resembles a 19th-century domestic comedy, consciously contrived to portray the attitudes and manners of the gentry, especially their bitter resentment and hatred of outsiders.
It is as the novel focuses on the courtship of its heroine, Melissa Worthing, that it moves beyond comedy to become in part an adventure yarn, in part a bawdy female memoir, complete with raucous sex, mistaken identities, a brutal rape, and a violent gory murder. Also central to the action are Melissa's twin brother Freddy, a worthless layabout who seeks a career on the comic stage, and her sister Esmie, a widow who acquired prophetic powers by her marriage to a gypsy. Through this unlikely combination the novel centers on its major themes, ethnic prejudices and hatreds, the awkward and precarious position of the 19th-century Jew.
One could argue that there would have been better ways to approach such matters, that parts of Russell's novel seem silly and inconsequential, but the questions of inauthenticity that some readers will doubtless raise are beside the point. The ups and downs of the characters, abrupt benign changes in attitude, and the contrived happy ending resemble such features in stage comedy, and are not intended to represent historically likely incidents. The Bishop's Daughter is not a historical novel, but in part a salute to earlier forms of literature, in part a mad fantasy.