Vanessa Winn’s first novel is a well-researched story based on factual accounts of people living in colonial Victoria, B.C. Winn’s specific focus is on the lives of women in Fort Victoria, and how they were affected by their marriage prospects. The main character is Margaret Work, unwed at the ripe old age of 24. Margaret fears that she will never marry, but attends numerous parties and balls hosted by Royal Engineers, naval officers, and Hudson’s Bay Company men in the hope of finding a suitable mate.
Winn depicts the snobbery and racism shown toward Margaret and her sisters, who were born to a British father and Métis mother. Tension between the British old world and the Canadian new world is a theme that runs throughout the book.
Winn, a Victoria resident, provides interesting details about the lives of people in 1850s Victoria. In one passage, Winn describes the removal of the palisades at the Hudson’s Bay Company fort, which enabled women wearing hoop skirts to enter and exit the building.
The extensive historical details are intriguing, but they also tend to overwhelm the narrative. It is as if Winn became so fascinated by her own research that she felt she had to include every important historical figure of the time. The sheer number of minor characters, not to mention the repetitiveness of following the characters from ball to wedding to funeral to ball, creates confusion and dilutes the novel’s focus. Winn’s attention to historical detail should be lauded, but it seems as though the plot was left to wither as a result.