The scandalous Australian woman who enchanted British society
Headstrong and beautiful, in 1905 Rosetta escaped her safe Melbourne life, deserting her respectable husband and five-year-old daughter to run away with Zeno the Magnificent, a half-Chinese fortune teller and seducer of souls.
The pair reinvented themselves in London, where they beguiled European society and risked everything for a life of glamour and desire. Rosetta said she was American; Zeno claimed to be a brilliant Japanese professor. Together they attracted the patronage of famous writers, inventors and scientists, lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses. Empress Eugenie, the widow of Napoleon III, and Princess Charlotte, sister of Germany’s last Kaiser, were among their greatest devotees.
Rosetta revelled in a life few women of her time would have dared to embrace, yet all the while she hid her secret shame: the daughter she had left behind.
This is the compelling story of Alexandra Joel’s quest to uncover the truth about her scandalous great-grandmother, and the shocking century-old secret she would discover at the heart of her family.
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Beguiling is an apt descriptor for this title and its series of conjured, fictional vignettes that contrast with a workmanlike approach to the research involved.
I was surprised that within the initial pages Joel relinquishes the element of suspense regarding her lead character’s relationship with her child. Readers are left in no doubt as to how that sad story ends, and so it is under that shadow that attention is turned to the remarkability of Rosetta’s exploits.
In a recent interview Joel describes her conflicted feelings about the actions of her great-grandmother. Her inner struggle is offered up for all to see, so the author’s lack of objectivity will be pointed to. But if not a mother, we’ve all been children and will have views on the circumstances under which a parent might choose to break all ties with their child. Ultimately though it is a choice many have made, so the judgement will come down to individual context. Rather than debate the decisions made by the mercurial Rosetta, it is more useful to acknowledge that this title also serves as a memoir of her great-granddaughters experience having that family background.
The strong presence of the author’s voice slows the pace, but I found passages where Joel recounts her travels to places of significance in Rosetta’s life interesting. Details regarding the factual evidence (letters, photos, interviews) both anchor and amplify the sensational aspects of the tale.
What I found most successful was the sense of time and place, grandeur and possibility Joel evokes in her conjured glimpses into the lives and minds of Rosetta and Zeno — an individual’s potential to influence countless lives, the commonality of human interest and friendship across social class and creed in contrast to nominal delineations imposed by war.
Notwithstanding the darker undertones of selfishness and abandonment, within Rosetta there shines through an admiration for boundary breakers, and particularly the women in positions of influence at a time of great change. Also, despite the brazen survivor instinct and falsehood of roles Rosetta and Zeno chose to play, Joel’s depiction is of multi-faceted individuals not without compassion for their clients/benefactors.
Alexandra Joel’s title will particularly appeal to those with an interest in history and the process of writing about it, not just in the end product.
PS: Bravo to the Vintage cover art. Alas, I received an electronic copy of this book otherwise, this beautiful specimen would have a place on my display bookshelf.
BOOK RATING: The Story 3 / 5 ; The Writing 3.5 / 5 — Overall 3.25
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Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir, Historical, Adventure, Romance
About the Author, Alexandra Joel
Alexandra Joel is the author of Parade: the Story of Fashion in Australia, a social history detailing the development of fashion, style and national identity. She is a former editor of the Australian edition of the international magazine Harper’s Bazaar, and of Portfolio, Australia’s first magazine for working women. More recently, Alexandra has been a practising counsellor and psychotherapist.
- Watch this video where Alexandra explains to The Age (Fairfax) some of the history behind the scandal (includes some wonderful old photos)
- Read the full transcript of Valerie Khoo’s (Australian Writer’s Centre) interview with Alexandra Joel discussing what it was like to write about her own family history and her quick path to publication, plus a little on the next book she is working on about another family’s history.
Other reviews of Rosetta
* My receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.