In 1822, Maria Graham is a travel writer, illustrator, and English ship captain’s widow. Although the latter status gains her entry into society, she takes greater pride in her intellect. After her husband dies while they’re rounding Cape Horn, she settles in at his intended destination of Valparaiso, Chile, exhilarated at the thought of beginning anew. She’s confident her future will involve Admiral Lord Cochrane, the Napoleonic war hero who helped win Chile its independence.
Cochrane has a wife back home, but Maria sees herself as his ideal companion, and her lofty tone is entertainingly witty. “When society tutted that I had ‘set my cap’ at Lord Cochrane,” she writes, “I cocked a snook at them – I never wore anything but a turban.” The novel presents her recollections about their affair and her interactions with native Chileans (she prefers the company of foreigners to other expats), as well as her observations on South America’s volatile politics and gorgeous scenery. The changing colors of the majestic Andes are beautifully described.
Indeed, one could imagine this novel was the real woman’s authentic memoir – it adopts a period-appropriate formality – if not for the fact that this fictional Maria, supposedly writing from beyond the grave, sometimes breaks in to address modern audiences directly. Free from the constraints of 19th-century morality, she expands upon her published journals, which are silent on the true nature of her relationship with Cochrane.
Readers who can adjust to this conceit should enjoy her travelogue, which later sees her accompanying Cochrane to Brazil, a country she finds vulgar because its economy depends on slavery. Maria Graham never let society’s rules sway her opinions or desires, and with insightful skill, Billington has brought her adventurous heroine back into the limelight.
Maria and the Admiral was published in 2012 by Orion (UK) at £18.99 (hb, 350pp), and the paperback will be out in May 2013. I bought a copy in a shop on London's Charing Cross Rd while I was overseas for the HNS Conference last October. This review also appears in February's Historical Novels Review.