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Afterimage by Helen Humphreys

Afterimage (2000)

by Helen Humphreys

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2491073,272 (3.53)78
"When Annie Phelan arrives at the Dashell farm to begin work as a maid, she finds her new mistress strapping turkey wings on a naked boy who is to play the Angel of Death. Annie knows one thing for sure - she's not at the prim Mrs. Gilbey's anymore." "England in 1865 is aswirl with change. This is the age of invention, the Crystal Palace, progress, and the colonies. At the farm, the master, Eldon, dreams of charting unknown territory and becoming a great cartographer, while the mistress, Isabel, struggles with a new technology - photography - to produce art. Physically distant from her husband, she struggles as well with the repressed sexuality of the Victorian age.". "It is Annie, beautiful, suggestible, and sensitive, who proves to be Isabel's inspiration - and the Dashells' undoing. Through a series of portraits - Guinevere, Ophelia, Grace, the Madonna - Isabel transforms the maid into her confidante and muse. To Eldon, too frail to sustain the world explorations for which he longs, Annie becomes "Phelan," a crucial member of his imaginary Arctic expedition. Caught between the two, Annie nearly loses herself, until disaster reveals her power over the Dashells' work and hearts."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)



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Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
This was an interesting book. It's not terribly much in the way of plot, rather, it's in introspective look into the lives of people who have been beset by tragedy and are trying to deal with the lot they have been given by life by escaping into fantasy worlds: Isabelle loses herself in her photography, Eldon in his maps and books, and Annie in believing she has become their equal.

This book never spends much time being overly dramatic and pretentious, which I enjoyed. There's certainly a lot that's left unsaid and the story requires a lot of reading between the lines, but I think that helped with the atmosphere Humphreys was trying to convey.

One thing I particularly liked was Annie's relationships with Isabelle and Eldon. The usual story of a maid finding friendship with her mistress and having an unspoken almost-romance with her master is subverted here. ( )
  majesdane | Aug 8, 2017 |
Long and immaculate descriptions of nothing happening, people with weirdly muted reactions to things happening around them. It just meanders into tedium, into details of weird people doing weird things, seemingly with no point and no end. I found it difficult to care because no one in the book seemed to care about anything either.

Then, on page 220 or so (out of 248), the fire happens, and the book becomes utterly captivating: Helen Humphreys' style suddenly has a point other than beauty for its own sake, and the imagery is gorgeous. But 28 pages from the end is a little too late to hook me.

Also: isn't it a little weird that the book's whole premise is that it's based on real photographs of a real Victorian housemaid, images so strange that Helen Humphreys felt compelled to write a novel about them, yet the cover uses a contemporary stock photo?
  Stevil2001 | Oct 9, 2016 |
There are so many wonderful ways to describe Helen Humphreys writing: alluring, elegant, poetic, poignant. This is one of my favorite Humphreys reads so far, mainly for Humphreys’ borrowed use of certain aspects of British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron to create a very different but probably equally passionate photographer in Isabelle Dashell. I am a big fan of the Victoria England setting so it should come as no surprise that I appreciated Humphreys’ quasi-Gothic portrayal of the Victorian England class system and the interesting display of the slow dying of one art form with the rise of another. Sadly, the story itself didn’t satisfy me or flow as luxuriously as Humphreys’ prose. The emotional and intellectual triangle between Isabelle, Annie and Eldon – their various attachments, longings, desires and frustrations – have a gradual building tension that works well here but the overall character development seems a bit unbalanced to me. I thought Eldon was a wonderful character and reasonably well developed given the rather secondary role he played. I felt as though I could understand his deep set longing and his detachment from his wife and her life. As for Isabelle, well, I get her frustrations but her single-minded focus and rather rude disregard for other people’s feelings makes her nothing, in my mind anyways, more than a shallow woman driven by her passion for her art (allegorically composed photography). I also found Annie’s character to be a contradiction that did not sit well with me, as being just a bit too naive and accommodating while at the same time questioning with some marked superiority her employers, the Dashells. This story is a feast for readers who enjoy re-reading passages as opposed to re-reading whole stories. Favorite passage for me:

... what she does is not really about life, about living. It is about holding on to something long after it has left.
Like grief. Like hope.
Life is the unexpected generosity of a kiss.
It is the falling moment. Unrecorded.

Overall, a beautifully written story that receives high marks from me for its prosaic beauty and its capture of the Victorian England class system, but low marks for the characterization of Isabelle and Annie that left me rather frustrated as a reader. ( )
1 vote lkernagh | Mar 4, 2016 |
This is a moment when I realize how silly and subjective a book rating can be. I am not sure whether Humphreys is not at her best or whether it was not the right moment for me to read [Afterimage] but except for a few stellar passages I trudged through it with frozen feet (I'll explain). Annie Phelan comes out from London in 1865, to work for the Dashells out in the country. Previously, fresh from the orphanage, she worked for a harsh mistress. She can read, she is very bright and also beautiful The Dashells are the bohemians of their era. Eldon D. wishes he was sturdy enough to be a true explorer, but contents himself with mapmaking, his wife, Isabelle, has fallen in love with photography. Eldon shines off the page and Isabelle is believable enough (albeit unlikable yet for whom one feels some compassion). Annie slides too easily into their orbits and good graces; she was just too kind and clever to ring quite true, which feels like a measly thing to say, but for that time period she seems too curious and open-minded to also be as religious as she is and as poorly educated as she is--she can read, yes, but her reading has been confined to religious texts, and she is also a believer, more than anyone else in that house. At the same time I was transported by Eldon and Annie (as "Phelan") replaying a small part of Franklin's expedition on a wintry day. (Eldon leaves his boots outside to freeze them and then clomps around in them,--Annie joins him.) It wasn't believable, not really, but it was wonderful nonetheless. it might have been more sensible to make the Annie Phelan character some sort of poor and unexpected relation in the gray area between help and equal. Another quibble is that sometimes the story felt overly researched, not quite integrated into the story but "managed" into it. Humphreys did a lot of reading about the 19th century expeditions to find the Northwest Passage and about photography, her inspiration being Julia Margaret Cameron. Anyhow, I hate giving Humphreys less than four stars, but the book dragged. What Isabelle does at the end, also (you'll know if you get there) was also . . . just maybe . . . too mean, too out of character even for her contradictory self. Not unrecommended, there's plenty to like and possibly even love. ***1/2 ( )
  sibylline | Dec 10, 2015 |
Afterimage is a wonderful book and easily readable in one sitting. It is so well written that you won't want to put it down.

Afterimage examines a year in the life of a household living near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The main characters are Isabelle Dashell, daughter of a local lord, and Eldon Dashell, her husband, who live without really living. Isabelle tries -- her photography is her passion, using the housemaids and the gardener for models; Eldon, who wanted to join the search for the missing Franklin Arctic expedition, works on atlases for a single publishing company and lives life vicariously through the narratives of famous explorers. Eldon is perpetually depressed, and both he and Isabelle are incredibly lonely, unable to connect with each other on a personal level. Enter the new maid, Annie Phelan, a woman who can read (her favorite book is Jane Eyre) and who has a great deal of intelligence, who brings something new into the Dashell's home for both Isabelle and Eldon, but whose entrance also sparks a horrible tragedy.

Afterimage captures a small slice of the Victorian era, complete with its status, gender and class divisions. The writing is excellent, the characters are well drawn. I noticed that some reviewers at other sites criticize the book for not having a plot, per se, but I think those readers missed the point. My only criticism is that the end is a bit overwrought and maybe a bit melodramatic, but otherwise, it is a novel I can most heartily recommend. ( )
3 vote bcquinnsmom | Jan 2, 2010 |
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