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Unkindest cut: “Judith slaying Holofernes”, c.1614-20, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Maestra is a spectacular act of revenge — on the English upper class, and on men. This revenge is more direct on the part of its protagonist; less so on the part of its novelist; and it is accomplished in a manner coldly furious, exuberant, wish-fulfilling, and, in its own way, snobbish. Whatever the truth of the author Lisa Hilton’s claim that “I actually live a really boring life. My hobbies are reading and cookery and I dress like a homeless person most of the time,” the life of her mind is far from this. 

It should be acknowledged immediately that the novel ends “To Be Continued”, and opens a projected trilogy. Every word in this review might have the carpet pulled out from under it by the successor novels — especially, as is the way of these things, the last one. But in that case, they would be pulling out the carpet from under this novel itself — which I would like to bet would resist pretty fiercely, since it is aloof, independent-minded, and has ample wherewithal to defend itself from redemption. So: watch out for the false ending, heroine Judith Rashleigh! But no need for paranoia. Odds on you’ll survive and thrive to be an immaculately-dressed octogenarian, hiring the very best gigolos, and with your very own collection of Artemisia Gentileschis.

Chronic rage is a strange beast. It can be generated by one terrible circumstance, or a series of adverse conditions. But its other parent is a certain personality type, which is capable of sustaining it. It is often egotistical and always unwise — destructive of self and others, of quality of life, and of life itself — but is rarely without a worthy target. It usually pertains to something very wrong with the world — man-made and curable or otherwise. Dostoyevsky’s anti-heroes, such as Ivan Karamazov, have a sharp perception of the latter — those things that make the very conditions of human life outrageous.The rest of us may be more or less aware of these wrongs, but we do not take them to heart — have not had personal cause to, or cannot bear to, or have lost the energy to, or with a great moral effort have overcome having done so. In one of the most famous passages of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the narrator reflects: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” In context, this concerns compassion. But keen vision and feeling can perceive injustice as well as the pain which it can cause. And the same applies. Most of us do indeed walk about well wadded with apathy about injustice. Society could not function otherwise. Beware of those who are stripped bare.

Judith Rashleigh, protagonist of Maestra is, let us say, thinly-clad. Some of her rage results from, or is at least facilitated by, an unstable upbringing by an alcoholic single mother. Late in the novel she tells a lover how she was sexually abused by one of her mother’s boyfriends — then bursts out laughing at his credulity of this hackneyed story. So that’s a maybe. But it is certain that her home life was in many senses poor. She was bullied at her Liverpool school by other girls, in part, presumably, because she stood out as bright and swottish — a type of anti-intellectual bullying which, in England, is connected to the class system. After rejection by her own kind as an intellectual, and having escaped into “an environment where confession to an interest in anything apart from fucking reality shows wasn’t an invitation to a cracked jaw”, she is patronised and exploited at the London auction house where she works after her Oxford degree, as a “Northerner” of the wrong class and accent.

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