Molly Guinness

A Valparaiso romance

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Maria and the Admiral

Rachel Billington

Orion, pp. 350, £

More than 150 years after her last publication, the narrator of this novel, the travel writer Maria Callcott, has taken up her pen to tell all about her friendship with Admiral Cochrane. Freed from the shackles of 19th- century propriety, she can finally reveal what really went on during that Chilean interlude.

The affair develops against a backdrop of the naval ex-pat scene in Valparaiso, exciting developments in steam power, the 1822 earthquake and a lot of charming natives. It’s as much a record of 19th-century Chile as a drama, and Rachel Billington gives a real sense of the beauty and atmosphere of Valparaiso and its surroundings. The romance proceeds at a leisurely pace; with afternoon teas, walks in the hills and a lot of political conversations, one thing leads to another.

Maria is an erudite narrator and there’s nothing she likes more than quoting poetry at naval officers. She has a line or two for every occasion: ‘Wishing to dispel His Lordship’s frowns, I quoted, to show my understanding, from a Spanish poet.’ Byron, Wordsworth, Milton and Shakespeare make astonishingly regular appearances, too.

Capturing a style from 200 years ago is a tricky thing and 19th-centuryisms can sound like bad Latin translations if you’re not careful. Maria is often charting the way of the finny race or suiting actions to words, or proceeding with the opposite of speed. She doesn’t quite ply with speed her partnership of legs, like Housman’s parody of a Greek tragedy, but she’s not far off:

As he spoke eloquently, expanding his understanding of the aquatic world, he took hold of my arm as he would a fellow naval officer’s, and then my hand, which I assumed a tribute to my female sex.

But Maria’s erudition is what sets her apart from the rest of her sex, so it’s no surprise that she doesn’t wear her learning lightly. It’s also the most poignant thing about her — in many ways she penetrates the male sphere, but when it comes to love she is at the mercy of a disapproving society, inadequate communications and an adventuring lord. She often goes for months without hearing from Cochrane; when she sees him, she carefully keeps the tone of their conversations light, and she never asks anything from him:

It may seem odd that I was surprised and grateful for the kindness of a man in whose affection I honestly believed. But I respected him as Lord Cochrane, naval hero, champion of the oppressed, innovator and admiral of the Chilean navy. In his world, the public world, I was insignificant.

It’s refreshing that Billington never makes her Maria self-pitying. Even when things are going very badly, she tells her story with heroic pride and doesn’t make demands on anyone for sympathy. When tragedy strikes, Maria describes it economically; she hardly even complains about dying of consumption. Her consciousness of the limitations of romantic love and her old-fashioned acceptance of emotional and physical pain make Rachel Billington’s Maria touching and dashing in equal measure.