In 1832, the era of Regency has already passed; and with it, the youth of Miss Catherine “Kitty” Phillips. Middle-aged and of modest fortune, she spends her days tutoring her nieces and nephew and her seasons shuttled between a dreary manor in Yorkshire and a London townhouse whose rooms hold associations both painful and pleasant.
In contrast, the life of Hetta Harwick is that of marital eligibility despite age. Once the spoiled and petted daughter of a gentleman in financial straits, Hetta is now heir to a fortune and returning to England in her triumph. Wealthy, elegant, and stylish, her interest in the scenes of London are not what they seem.
Unlikely as a friendship between the two women may seem, events soon place Kitty in the favor of the privileged Hetta. But whether this is in Kitty’s best interest remains to be seen, as the connection places her in situations that seem to challenge her image as a plain but respectable matron. And when a potential suitor–one far too young and handsome–enters the picture, rumors do begin to fly…
The Last Miss Phillips by Laura Briggs
I have always felt a kinship with Austen’s rebellious heroines. Their willingness to break with convention and broaden the definition of ‘accomplishment’ is refreshing and inspiring. The Last Miss Phillips features two such leading ladies. Catherine ‘Kitty’ Phillips is an unmarried woman of modest fortune on the cusp of middle age. Hetta Harwick, a lovely but unmarried woman also of a certain age, possesses a substantial fortune. Without any living relations to answer to, Hetta may (and does) do as she pleases. When the two women rekindle their old acquaintance, Kitty’s rather mundane existence takes a scandalous turn.
The similarities between Persuasion’s protagonist Anne Elliot and Kitty Phillips are apparent. Since I love Persuasion and the city of Bath where it takes place, I was excited to discover this parallel! Anne and Kitty both seem destined for spinsterhood, left to lead a life dependent upon the generosity of relatives. Like Anne, Kitty’s family takes her for granted. Kitty’s needs come second to those of her married and successful sisters, who are each raising large families. Kitty acts as nursemaid for her sister Louisa, teaching her children their lessons and helping her manage her bustling household.
This arrangement raises some interesting questions. In a society in which a woman’s identity, value and self-worth are inexplicably tied to her marriageability, the maintenance of a successful household and raising children, these two heroines have been left unsure of their role. What does it mean to be a single woman who will likely never marry? What options are available to women like Kitty, and how can they ensure their own happiness?
In addition to introducing the reader to two intriguing heroines, the novel is rich in period detail. The description of the charming little village of Beiberry Mile and its rigid social structure is both vivid and historically accurate. The author introduces the reader to a number of the village’s more colorful occupants, including the elderly but proud Mrs. Allgood, spunky Jack Littlewood and the handsome surgeon, Miles Turner. Mr. Turner’s chosen profession is a controversial one; 1832 was the first year that surgeons in England could legally perform dissections on unclaimed bodies.
I thoroughly enjoyed turning the pages and reading more about the budding relationship between Miss Phillips and the kind-hearted but controversial Mr. Turner. I felt that the author really got creative and allowed their relationship to develop through a series of unexpected and excited meetings. The story does occasionally get bogged down in the minutiae of the music that the characters play and compose, particularly during Herr Magnus Scheimann’s lengthy opera. However, it does give the reader insight into each heroine’s (and Herr Scheimann’s) state of mind. Playing and composing music allows the characters to express their most heartfelt emotions.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Miss Phillips, especially the contrast and friendship between heroines Kitty and Hetta. Who has not had a friend or acquaintance that their parents, or in Kitty’s case, her sisters, do not totally approve of? Reading this novel will make you smile, remind you of a friend who talked you into doing something you knew you probably shouldn’t do and have you rooting for the heroines from beginning to end.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Laura Briggs has been a Jane Austen fan since she first fell in love with Sense and Sensibility at the age of fourteen. Since graduating college with a B.A. in English, Briggs has published several novels and novellas in both the traditional and indie writing worlds. She has co-authored one Austen continuation in the form of the Contemporary Romance Dear Miss Darcy and published a novella with Pelican Book Group titled Christmas With Miss Austen. Visit Laura online on Facebook.
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