Australian Women Writers Challenge – Book Review 5

My final review, according to the rules, does not signal that the challenge is over: there are still many books to read this year.

While writing a cooking scene for my novel Woven, I thought of Karen Brook’s The Chocolate Maker’s Wife. I have enjoyed Karen’s sessions at writing events and was easily immersed (as a onetime brewer) in The Brewer’s Tale. Karen conducts meticulous research and is unashamedly interested in the role of women in historical industry, once suggesting that when a women is successful in an enterprise, it was quickly controlled by men.

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is set in 17th century England, a time of change and despair due to the plague and the Great Fire in 1666. Protagonist Rosamund endures a childhood of poverty and abuse before setting up a trendy chocolate house in London. She meets and befriends Samuel Pepys, a renowned diarist.

It is a fast paced rollicking tale that reminded me of such picaresque novels as Joseph Andrews (1742), Tom Jones (1749) and Moll Flanders (1722). In Karen’s novel, the episodes are suggested by chapter titles that each begin ‘In which …’ For example:

  • Six – In which husband and new wife discourse about chocolate
  • Nineteen – In which Sir Everard stipulates the impossible is possible
  • Thirty-three – In which death rides a pale horse

So what’s with this chapter title style? I came across an interesting New Yorker article – ‘The Chapter: A History’ that outlines the evolution of the chapter as a structural necessity. Initially useful in organising factual information, histories and the Bible, it was later adopted by publishers:

When editors like William Caxtion divided texts like Malory’s Morte d’Arthur into chapters, as he did in his 1485 edition, it was largely to permit readers to choose which moments of the story could be applied to particular moral teachings.

It seems Renaissance prose romances had no need of chapters. But

As the modern novel developed , explanations like those of the Fieldings became less necessary. Chapter titles themselves lost their overt connection to the ‘in which’ or ‘concerning’ syntax, virtually a plot summary, which derived from Biblical capitula. Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers could still pull off the old sort, as in ‘Chapter 38: Mr Samuel Weller, Being Entrusted With a Mission of Love, Proceeds to Execute it; With What Success will Hereinafter Appear’; by the eighteen-seventies, Anthony Trollope could title a chapter simply ‘Vulgarity’.

Karen Brooks’ use of title chapters effectively hails the historical period of its setting, and is well worth a read. (as is Nicholas Dames’ ‘page-turner’ article.)


*image from HarperCollinsPublishers Australia

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