For years I put off reading The Passions of Emma because it didn’t sound all that romantic to me. I didn’t want to read about the heroine’s dying close friend whose husband is the eventual hero – especially when the romance doesn’t begin in earnest until the last quarter of the book. But true to Penelope Williamson’s tremendous writing talent, this book - now out of print, but available for $3.99 on Amazon Kindle - is not only a very romantic story but also a very moving one set against the challenging backdrop of the industrial 1890s.
Emma Tremayne has a lot to live up to in the eyes of her family and, as one of the outrageously rich Tremaynes and the family’s beauty, she is expected to marry very well. Enjoying a life of privilege, Emma is one of The Great Folk, as the old moneyed families like to think of themselves, while the less fortunate identify her as one of those living in that big mansion on the hill. But inside Emma is a thoughtful and compassionate woman who doesn’t enjoy being out in society and questions if her family and friends are the superior beings they believe themselves to be.
It’s the last fox hunt of the season and a day that will prove to be significant for Emma in a number of ways, mostly due to two captivating individuals who enter her life. First, as Emma prepares to ride, she can’t help but notice the brazen Irishman who helps her mount her horse. His rough words, raspy voice, and Irish lilt seem a menacing combination and she envies his confidence as he swaggers away. Emma can’t keep her eyes from drifting to him either as he is performs his task of controlling the hounds.
As the riders return from the hunt, Emma observes the second startling character of the day - a working class woman carrying a mangled dead child. She is crying out that the men are “all murderers” knowing that the owner of the Thames Street Mill is present. After a terse interchange, the enraged woman takes a parting shot at Emma, mockingly calling out to the crowd, “And would you look at your fine lady sitting up there on her fancy horse. Wearing her fine clothes woven of such a misery as the deaths of poor wee children and her not caring a jot for it.” To Emma, the words are both sickening and haunting.
Emma is compelled to find the woman, Bria McKenna, and thus begins the odd but deep friendship between the two women. Although the McKennas live meagerly and their two daughters work at the infamous mill, Emma loves spending time with Bria and her children and becomes a frequent visitor. It is difficult for Bria to believe Emma is serious about developing a friendship, but she senses that there is more between the two than a need for Emma to provide handouts to the less fortunate. Bria is a highly likable character and doesn’t rank as a true secondary – she plays more of a leading role.
Emma realizes that the Irish man from the hunt is none other than Bria’s husband, Shay. He is a proud man who works a variety of jobs and provides for his family – barely. His inability to take care of his family more completely was challenging for me at first, but that concern soon evaporates since this book also works as an essay on the expectations of Irish immigrants in the 1890s after living in such poverty in Ireland. Shay frequently gives money to others less fortunate and supports the cause – the ongoing rebellion in Ireland. As I read the book, it all began to make an odd sort of sense and my admiration for Shay grew with each page. There is a greater tragedy at play in Shay’s life and Emma sees in his eyes, “the look of a man who is watching his beloved wife die before his eyes breath by breath.”
Shay is a strong part of this book but his character is more of a backdrop to Emma and Bria’s friendship for the first half. Initially Emma experiences a strange attraction to him, but once she realizes who he is she firmly places those feelings aside and the two develop a wary relationship. Their concern is Bria and both share an intense love for the dying woman.
Excellent secondary characters abound and I must give recognition to a few. Emma’s fiancé, Geoffrey, although the owner of the Thames Street Mill, is a man shaped by his time and position and one who clearly loves Emma in his own way. I couldn’t help but like his decadent, world-weary, brother, Stu, who plainly has an understanding of social injustices and a clear grasp on reading others even though he hides it under a cloak of cynicism. And then there is Emma’s mother who is quickly seen to be the villain of the story, albeit a very unusual one. Her whalebones poke her belly, she faints because her corset is too tight, and she struggles to lose weight - all in an effort to be attractive to her absent husband once he returns home for Emma’s wedding.
A number of scenes brought tears to my eyes and those were not for Bria alone. Although this is a beautiful tale of women’s friendship, it is also a two-fold romance – first between Bria and Shay and secondly between Shay and Emma and it works. There are significant obstacles to their happiness from within and without but knowing Emma and Shay so intimately before they become a couple succeeds in making their romance all the more rewarding.
The Passions of Emma’s distinctive narrative is poignant, heartening, and rousing but such it is for Penelope Williamson’s older books. I am left with this feeling of exhilaration because I just read one of those really great ones but disappointment as well knowing it will be a while before I read another one this good.
-- Lea Hensley
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