Review: The Square of Sevens, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Teresa Edgerton

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The Square of Sevens, a novel by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

If you go looking for this book, make sure you get the novel, since there is also a 19th century manual on cartomancy that bears the same title—the very book, in fact, that inspired this story.

We first meet young Red as a little girl of six, telling fortunes under the direction of her father, a Cornish “cunning man.” They travel from place to place, sleeping in barns or ditches, plying their trade in inns and taverns. It is a hard life—and an illegal one with serious penalties, telling fortunes for money in the mid-18th century—but the child is happy enough, except for her unanswered questions about the name and identity of her dead mother. But then her father sickens and dies, entrusting her care to a recently-met but kindly gentleman scholar and collector, named Robert Antrobus.

At first reluctant, Mr. Antrobus accepts the charge when Red is threatened with life in a cruel orphanage instead. He takes her away with him to Bath, where he and his housekeeper raise her as a genteel young lady, now called Rachel. But several years later, when first the housekeeper is killed by burglers, and then Mr. Antrobus in a fire, Rachel/Red becomes obsessed with finding out the truth of who she is: that is, why her father kept her mother’s name and story a secret which he took with him to his grave. Certain clues, lead the daughter to suspect that her mother was a member of the almost obscenely wealthy de Lacey family, disowned when she disgraced herself by eloping with the lowly fortuneteller, John Jory Jago.

But now there is reason to believe that a long-lost codicil to Red’s grandfather’s will left his entire fortune to his first born grandchild, whoever that might turn out to be (none being yet born at the time of his death)—in other words, seemingly to Red herself.

But the inheritance in question has long been in dispute among rival factions of the de Lacey family, and the subject of numerous court cases. (A Dickensian touch there, as I was reminded of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House) Red knows she must have proof of who she is in order to claim the vast fortune for herself. To gain that proof she must get as close as possible to the de Lacey’s (without revealing her own secrets until the time is right), which is not so difficult as it might seem, because there are those in the family, particularly her grandmother and one of her aunts, who are obsessed with repeatedly consulting the cards, so that having their own tame cartomancer at their command strikes them as highly desirable.

As an orphan girl trying to make her own way in a hostile world, Red naturally engages our sympathy, but I have to say that aside from that she is not an especially sympathetic character: interesting, yes, but not very likable. She is just a touch too self-absorbed and ruthless for that.

For instance, she is convinced that the cards and the method she uses to read them (the eponymous square of sevens) are accurate, revealing truths buried in human souls about their pasts and their futures, yet she is not above manipulating the cards or lying about their meanings during a reading, in order to gain favor with the de Lacey women and further her own goals.

There are numerous twists and turns to the plot, the later chapters providing one revelation after another, with murder, madness, and incest all in the mix. And very few of the characters are quite what they seem: “good” characters not nearly so good as they appear, “bad” characters . . . well usually even worse than originally suspected . . . and even Red has some major surprises for readers by the end.

The author has done a great deal of research on the era, and occasionally drops in details to remind us of when this is all occurring, and also to drive the plot, yet somehow I felt that a true 18th century atmosphere was somewhat lacking. For some reason, I had to keep reminding myself that the setting wasn’t Regency or Victorian, but a century earlier. But that’s just my own take. Others might be bored by the descriptive details that would have delighted me. I did enjoy the way she depicted the contrast and tension between an era of scientific discovery, and the avid hunger of a large segment of the population for magic, miracles, and fortune-telling.

And over all, it is a very clever book, sure to delight many—as indeed, going by the reviews, it has already done so.
 

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