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Dearest Josephine by Caroline George

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Dearest Josephine

by Caroline George
February 2, 2021 · Thomas Nelson
Contemporary RomanceGothicParanormalRomanceYoung Adult

Content warnings: Lots and lots of grief and loss, also death of a secondary character

Dearest Josephine is an epistolary novel about grief and coming of age, disguised as a paranormal gothic romance. It is a sweet, clever, beautiful book, and I adored it.

In 1820, the recently orphaned Elias Roch meets Josephine DeClare at an inn, and falls instantly and passionately in love. But in the morning, she is gone, and he has no idea of where she lives. He searches for her, and as he does, he writes her letters, which he hopes he will one day be able to send.

In 2020, Josephine DeClare has just arrived at Cadwallader Manor ‘the creepiest fixer-upper in all of England’, an estate purchased by her father shortly before he died. Opening an antique desk in search of a pen, she instead finds a bundle of unopened letters in a secret compartment, dating from 1820, and addressed to her. And then she finds the manuscript of a novel, written in the same hand…

Dearest Josephine contains several narratives and styles of correspondence, but the timeline we follow is Josephine’s. Josephine exchanges emails and text messages with her best friend, Faith, as well as exchanging text messages with her rather distant mother, with estate caretakers Norman and Martha, and with Oliver, their grandson who soon becomes a close friend.

Interspersed with these messages are the letters from Elias, which we read as Josephine reads them. His letters are romantic and yearning and full of complicated grief at the death of his own father, as well as his love and fascination with a Josephine who really seems to be identical to the modern Josephine DeClare – they share a face, a middle name, a tendency to talk with their hands, even a fondness for bee motifs on their clothing.

And in between are the chapters of the novel Elias wrote, which Josephine is also reading. His novel is very autobiographical, telling the story of Elias Welby and his star-crossed romance with chance-met Josephine DeClare. Yes indeed, our hero writes angsty romantic fanfic about his own life. It’s kind of glorious and sad, and also a little bit confusing, at least to me.While I enjoyed Elias’s novel, and it is important to the story, I found it difficult at times to remember which events had happened to Elias Roch, historical figure, and which to Elias Welby, the fictitious hero of his novel.

Both Josephine and Elias are coming to terms with the death of a father – in Josephine’s case, a very beloved one, in Elias’s, a distant and unaffectionate one – and so this story is driven by grief, even though it doesn’t feel like a story that is solely about grief. Josephine falls in love with Elias across time, through his letters and his portrait. I had no trouble whatsoever believing this – she is the sort of person who throws herself into situations wholeheartedly, and the romance and mystery are irresistible to her. And he writes so beautifully:

You have haunted my thoughts for months. I think about your wild hair and your ridiculous laugh, how you spoke as though we have been friends since childhood. I still remember the patter of your feet as you grabbed my hands and forced me into a country dance.

My life revolved around formalities until I met you. Then, I met you, and my heart was yours. Completely. In a moment, I was yours.

Shakespeare mastered the art of a romantic declaration, but I am quite poor at it, and no amount of practice seems to mend the inadequacy. Instead of endeavouring to craft an orotund sentiment, I shall state myself with plainness.

Josephine, regardless of my faults, I have one detail in my favour. I love you most ardently.

But I also couldn’t help thinking that Elias is a very safe person to love, because Josephine cannot possibly lose him as she lost her father. He’s a good place to put all those huge and painful emotions she is dealing with. Similarly, Elias’s love for Josephine is, I think, driven at least in part by the fact that she is mostly a fantasy. He has met her only once, and while he is continually writing to people who may know where she lives, there is at least one occasion when he thinks she may be close by, but he avoids going to look for her in person. On some level, it’s easier to be in love with someone who you will never see, and who will therefore never let you down.

As Faith writes to Josephine:

Please listen. I think sometimes we love things we can’t have, because knowing we’ll never get them protects us from wanting too much. Or maybe we use those unattainable things as a distraction because we’re afraid to open our hearts to what’s right in front of us.

That’s the biggest risk – choosing to love something we could lose.

Elias is, I think, also somewhat aware that part of his love for Josephine *is* the fantasy. While he writes in his letters that he wants to court her, he also acknowledges more than once that he still hasn’t found her address, and it’s probably going to be strange if he sends her all of these letters in one parcel, many months after their single encounter. And of course he is right. Mr Rochester or Heathcliff might get away with that kind of behaviour and make it seem swooningly romantic, but in real life? That’s restraining order time.

Actually, that’s one of the fun things about the book. It’s full of all these gothic tropes – a brooding hero who is an orphan and a bastard but also heir to a great estate; a spooky house; loyal retainers; sudden deaths and lingering illnesses; dramatic emotional scenes; not to mention the mysterious romance across time – but it has surprisingly little gothic darkness. Partly, that’s because Josephine is not isolated in her big spooky house, but quickly begins making friends in the village. (I think the essence of a gothic heroine is that she is All Alone In The Spooky House.) But partly it’s because both Josephine and Elias are both fairly self-aware. They may be swept up in the romance of their story, but they are not completely ruled by their emotions. I found this refreshing, like a Brontë novel, but with emotional literacy.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the gothic moments:

Something changed yesterday. I woke up, and the manor sounded different. Its creaks and groans seemed like breaths, whispers. I tried to ignore the echoes by playing music. I paced the galleries, walked up and down the arched staircase. No matter what I did, the sounds grew louder…

Spooky house is gonna spooky house.

One of my favourite things about this book was the various relationships Josephine and Elias have with the people around them. Elias is the son of a nobleman and a housemaid, and while his father acknowledged him and sent him to Eton, his warmest relationships are with the housekeeper and other servants who raised him as a child. His friendship with Arthur, his best friend from Eton, is unsatisfactory and doomed, but Arthur’s cousin, Lorelai is a delight. She shares Elias’s love of painting and enters into his romantic quest to find Josephine with warmth and enthusiasm.

Josephine has a much wider circle of friends, which may explain why she is less brooding and gothic than Elias. There is Faith, with whom she shares all the details of the Elias story as it unfolds – as well as boyfriend advice, and mutual grief over Josephine’s father, who had rather adopted Faith when she was in England and away from her family. There are Norman and Martha, with whom she has a warm and grand-daughterly relationship. There are the friends she makes at the knitting club and at the village bakery, where she finds part time work.

And, of course, there is Oliver. Here’s how they met:

This morning I heard a noise – footsteps, a door slam, the occasional cough. Norman and Martha had gone to Durham for the day, so I assumed a burglar had broken into the manor. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I planned to do once I caught the culprit, but I jumped out of bed, shoved my feet into slippers, and crept down the hallway.

I pried an antique sword off the wall (Cadwallader possesses a lot of ornamental weapons), then snuck down the servants’ stairwell. I held the blade like a cricket bat and charged into the kitchen yelling, “Whoever you are, get out of my home.”

A boy stood near the furnace with an armful of firewood. He gawked at me – my sword and Donut Disturb pyjamas – and dropped the logs. He apologized, said his grandparents had told him I was at work. That’s right. I almost killed Norman and Martha’s grandson…

Oliver quickly becomes involved in Josephine’s search to discover what happened to Elias, and joins the ‘Book Club’, reading the novel and helping her track down historical documents through a friend at university. He also joins her knitting club, takes her to a Ceilidh to learn Scottish dancing, and bakes for her.

The denouement was also immensely satisfying for me. The way the different story threads were resolved really worked emotionally and thematically, and the plot twists managed to be surprising without undermining previous events.

I will say that if you are someone who needs to know how things work, you might find this novel frustrating, because some things are definitely left unexplained. This would normally annoy me immensely, but in this instance, I loved how everything else came together at the end so much that I didn’t mind.

Dearest Josephine really is a wonderful story. It is a story with a lot of heart, and a lot of atmosphere, but also a lot of humour. I love the way the theme of romantic love and the different ways it might be expressed is explored and affirmed throughout the book. I love the style of the writing, too – both Josephine and Elias tend to the poetic in their letters. If lovingly vivid descriptions of English landscapes are your jam, you will find plenty to enjoy here.

What more can I say? This book transported me to the Yorkshire moors; it made me laugh, and it made me gasp, and it kept me up way past my bedtime. I loved it.

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