Born on the same night as a fire-blazed comet hurtles across the sky, Ursula Flight’s story begins as brightly and excitingly as it will continue in Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s charming debut. Ursula is a gloriously uplifting character, and is given a strong narrative voice by Crowhurst. Though the vocabulary keeps in time with its 17th Century setting, The Illumination of Ursula Flight feels like a very modern tale, and the eponymous Ursula is a recognisable heroine.
Fostering a love of reading, writing and stories after being taught by her father from an early age, Ursula rallies against the constraints of the time and becomes an educated young woman with ambitions for an adventurous future. Befriending child-servants Mary and Samuel, Ursula begins writing plays for them to perform. Inventive use of font and text immerses us in Ursula’s writing, and her theatre scripts carry the plot throughout the book, however this grows weary when it begins to remove us from the emotion of later pivotal scenes.
As Ursula grows up, she graphically experiences the beginning of her monthly “curse”, which curses her in more ways than one, as it means she must now leave her care-free childhood and be married to the old and cold Lord Tyringham. The unflinching description of Ursula’s violent punishment at the hands of her mother and a flogging frame for displaying her unhappiness at her future prospects indicates a changing tone in her fortunes:
“The air whistled as the rod came down and stung the soft skin of my leg backs…Afterwards I lay face down on my bed and beat my fists and cried with shame and anger until my voice was cracked and my eyes puffed up and spongy to the touch.”
We endure lots of moping for a few (thankfully short) chapters until, despite an unhappy marriage, Ursula regains her sparkle with a relocation to London and its glittering theatre lights (or candles). Theatre is her salvation (and ours, as we recover our joyous narrator), and holding her own in a career in writing makes her a feminist of her time, inspiring other women around her:
“Pray, what does it feel like to be a woman with such things in your head?” “There is no pleasure on this earth better than reading.”
I think she is my hero. Before long she is reunited with Samuel and their tender and romantic love scenes juxtapose the harsh, mechanical and uncomfortable scenes with Tyringham. Samuel’s observation that: “The stars have come out for us” is a subtle and fitting link to the celestial simultaneity of Ursula’s birth. Surnames play an important role in Ursula’s story, and her return to Flight towards the end of the tale conveys the message of female empowerment which is the overarching theme and strength of the novel.
Humour comes thick and fast too due to Ursula’s conversational, almost casual, narration, and the inclusion of her theatre notes, without explanation also works well is this regard:
“Query: Do elephants come when called?”
A promising debut, its varying inventive styles is its USP. Once Crowhurst finds her feet she will be a strong, exciting voice in women’s fiction.
The Illumination of Ursula Flight was published by Allen and Unwin on 3rd May 2018.