I always enjoy books about art, artists, painting. The descriptions are always more vivid, drawing your attention to details that are sometimes taken for granted – the way light shines on fabric, the shade of sky in the morning. Following Ophelia did just that, as well as delivering an exciting story, an amazing protagonist, and an insight into both Victorian London and pre-Raphaelite society.
Mary Adams is new to London, having left her home in Kent to work as a scullery maid. Amongst the tiresome and endless work however, she catches the eye of London’s artistic circles, with her striking red hair and green eyes, that mark her out as the next ‘stunner’. She begins to model in secret for Felix Dawson, a promising but as yet unknown painter, who makes her feel seen and important, and is ferried about by her new friends under the fake name ‘Persephone Lavelle’. However, as big as London may be, society is small, and should her secret be found out, she could lose everything. When it comes under threat, Sophia has some startling decisions to make.
I took to Mary instantly. The book opens as she leans precariously over the edge of the ship transporting her through London, and she is instantly marked out as adventurous and slightly rebellious. She is clumsy but clever, and I admired her brain and wit. As she started modelling, I wondered when she would begin to do things for herself, however. It seemed like everything was happening to Mary, instead of because of her, and she was happy being pampered and adored by artists and their friends. Nevertheless, she proved me wrong, and my love for her doubled when Mary herself began to notice the shallow nature of the society she was keeping. She began to wish for something more than being stolen away from her life as a maid in secret to live as a lady in disguise, and realised that life as a lady and a model gave her little more freedom than life as a friend. It is only towards the later half of the book that Mary really begins to make her own choices, but this character growth was my favourite part of the novel, as we really see her grow and take ownership for her choices and her life.
I really love how Sophia Bennett has brought Victorian London and the art of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood into YA literature, and she did an excellent job at crafting this world. Her writing was beautiful and she described everything from dresses to houses and streets so well that you can imagine everything in your mind as you read, but it never felt convoluted and was never at the expense of plot. It all simply wove together perfectly. Further, I liked that significant figures in Victorian art kept popping up throughout the novel, such as Effie Gray, Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal popped up throughout the novel, sometimes as speaking characters and sometimes in the background, but there was never an info-dump or a feeling that I didn’t understand who the person was. Instead, Bennett feeds us tidbits of information about the artists and their lives throughout the story.
Overall, I really enjoyed Following Ophelia and would class it as one of my favourite reads of 2017. I rarely read historical novels as I become wary of having to learn too many facts to enjoy the story, and I rarely see Historical works in the Young Adult section, but Bennett managed to take an area of Victorian history and make it accessible and fun, creating her own story for the setting and a strong character that keeps us hooked with her adventures and her personal growth. I was surprised to see at the end of the book an advert for a sequel, and although I am usually apprehensive about YA series that are not fantasy or sci-fi, I can’t wait to follow Mary/Persephone in her story.