Sunday, October 1, 2023

My Review of Arresting Beauty by Heather Cooper



‘Beggars can’t be choosers. They really can’t.’

Based on true historical events, Arresting Beauty follows the extraordinary story of Mary Ryan, who was found begging on Putney Heath at the age of ten by the celebrated Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Julia takes Mary into her magnificently bohemian household, to be trained as a maid and educated alongside her own sons, before becoming an assistant, muse and model for Julia in many of her pioneering photographs.

When Julia decides to move to Freshwater in the Isle of Wight, to live close to her great friend Alfred Tennyson, Mary—clever and rebellious—finds herself uncomfortably poised between two worlds—that of a servant girl in one, and in another, artistic assistant to Julia and befriending the likes of Tennyson, battling class and attitudes of the time to fulfil her own goals and perhaps even find love.

A sparkling historic romance novel based on a true-life story.

ISBN-13 : 9781913894160 (Hardback), 9781913894153 (Paperback), 9781913894177 (eBook)

Publication Date: September 30th 2023

RRP: £20.00 (Hardback), £10.99 (Paperback), £5.99 (eBook)

Thank you to Beachy Books for my digital review copy.


Julia Margaret Cameron, “Romeo and Juliet,” c. 1867, Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin. 
Posed by sitters Mary Ryan and Henry Cotton


Henry took his leave of Julia and I said I would show him out. When we got to the front door I opened it for him (force of habit) but he suddenly seized my hand and pulled me outside into the dusk and along to the side of the house, away from where anyone could see us, and took me into his arms and began to kiss me,
 long kisses full of sweetness and tenderness and passion, with the scent of the first roses around us and the moon rising over the sea. He certainly had proved an apt pupil. When he finally left me, reluctantly and with many whispered farewells and murmurings of just-one-last-kiss, to walk across the fields back to his hotel, I stayed there in the darkness for a while, while my heart slowed back to normal. 


Fall into the world of artistic bohemia with photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, her husband, her children including newest addition, orphaned, Mary Ryan. On Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, at Julia's home, Dimbola Lodge, we feel the hurried buzz of overfrenzied activity as author, Heather Cooper takes us through Mary Ryan's new life. We see her age over the years, with a naivete juxtaposed against her strong sense of self. She becomes a parlormaid rubbing shoulders with the immortal faces of Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning and Julia's neighbor, Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson. 

Some of my most favorite chapters occurred between a curious young poetry reading Mary Ryan sneaking outdoors of Dimbola Lodge walking to Tennyson's nearby home, Farringford House. Some very sweet scenes of the laureate sitting under a tree talking to himself and as Mary gets closer, she hears a poem soon to be published, Maud!  Tennyson at Little Holland House equally surprised to see Mary Ryan there.   My favorite is the appearance of twelve year old Lionel Tennyson and Mary Ryan climbing up to the attic of Farringford House to see the stars while Tennyson was entertaining William Allingham.  

If you are curious about Mary Ryan's life with photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron and her clan, there are lots of wonderful chapters between the maids: Mary Hillier and Louisa as they get to know Mary Ryan. Heather Cooper very wisely describes the set up of photographs where Mary Ryan became the sitter and all of the home life situations that occur within the walls of Dimbola Lodge. 

This is a love story at heart, though. So, if you came for the romance its here in page turning beauty. From start to finish you will meet a few of MaryRyan's suitors before Henry Cotton sets his eyes on his true love. It is a tender love story told with a realism that could only come from orphaned beggar girl turned housemaid turned photographic sitter and assistant. 



The epilogue was a nice surprise as Heather Cooper provides more information on what happens to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cotton after they marry leaving the Isle of Wight for India. Here's little hint as Mrs. Cotton becomes Lady Cotton with her children in this gorgeous painting included in Henry Cotton's memoir, India & Home Memories.


To purchase Arresting Beauty, Beachy Books

For more information about the author visit her website, Heather Cooper

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