Book Review: The Muse of Fire by Carol M. Cram

Grace Johnson dreams of a life bigger than the one expected of a woman in the early nineteenth century. At twenty-two, she should be hoping for marriage and a home of her own. Instead after a childhood spent privately acting for her mother, she quietly longs for life in the spotlight, a place on a London stage, embracing the roles of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines, but she fears her dream will never come true. Not only is she overly tall, clumsy, and plain, but her father, a harsh man with a grudge against his own daughter whom he blames for her mother’s death, will not allow Grace to speak of it. When his temper and drunkenness cause him to beat Claire, she finds herself alone on the dark streets of London’s theatre district where she is rescued by a young man named Ned Platagenet. Ned, a stage manager at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, gives Grace a place to stay, and as their friendship grows, he takes her to a play, a rare event for the woman who has only seen one other play years ago. When she fills in for an absent chorus girl one night, she knows this is where she belongs and defies her father by begging her estranged aunt for a place to stay. However, the more time she spends with her newfound theater family, the more she realizes her own mother and aunt have a strange connection to some of the cast and crew and the less she trusts her own family and even the memories of her mother. In this world where the dreams of women are throttled at every turn, Grace must decide just how far she is willing to go to build a new life for herself. 

Perhaps the most striking trait of Grace Johnson is her willingness to accept the stigma associated with acting in the early 1800s. Though better than in centuries past, the theatre atmosphere was considered morally corrupt for women even married ones. This world of impassioned men playing daring roles sure to seduce even the most hard-hearted of women often led to unwanted pregnancies and homeless girls, and Grace isn’t immune to the charms of one such rogue. Grace is well aware of what society might say about her, but she doesn’t allow that to stop her. She makes her way on her own terms, doing what she must to continue acting even following her father’s disownment and her somewhat forced marriage. When her first acting performance flops, she licks her wounds then forges ahead. 

This optimistic-survivor attitude isn’t particular to Grace alone, though. Both Mr. John Kemble and Ned exhibit the same trait. Mr. Kemble, renowned actor and owner of the Theatre Royal, knows he must “ ‘find a way forward’ ” when fire destroys his precious theatre. He begs and borrows to finance this new building, larger than any other theatre in England and later stands firm against the raging crowds rioting in very theatre. Ned understands that he “ ‘can’t change what [he] can’t change’ ” and refuses to bemoan his lowly birth in the Foundling Hospital. This broad-shouldered, gentle giant rose from an orphanage to become the right-hand man of Kemble, a staple in the wings of this successful company. He is like everyone’s big brother, protective and watchful, a “white knight” showing his bravery during the OP Riots and his pure heart caring for Grace in her hour of need. 

This sprawling historical fiction takes the reader spinning through time with a cast of real-life stars of the London theatre in the early nineteenth century. The fictional characters are interwoven through the true story of two significant fires in the theatre district and the “Old Price” Riots which disrupted theatregoers and actors for months. Readers will see what life was like for the actors of the day as well as the average patron.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

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