Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer
Molly Tanzer took quite a bit of inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s classic 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray for her 2017 novel Creatures of Will and Temper, and yet manages to make her story far more unique than simply gender-switching some characters and tossing in modern-sounding references to changing social mores.
Evadne Gray and her younger sister Dorina are completely different — Evadne loves fencing above all else, while Dorina nurtures dreams of someday becoming an art critic — so being forced to take a trip to London together, with Evadne acting as Dorina’s chaperone, is cause for tremendous friction between the two. They’ll be staying with their uncle, Basil Hallward, a painter of great skill who seems to have lost his will to paint or enjoy life after the sudden death of his close friend, Oliver Wotton. Oliver’s sister, Lady Henry, is a mature woman who appreciates the finest things Victorian London can offer, whether it’s an exquisitely tailored suit, ginger-infused cigarettes, or an evening among friends.
Dorina is immediately adopted into Lady Henry’s circle of aesthetes, while Evadne discovers a local fencing school, and their differing interests rapidly pull the sisters apart. To Evadne’s shock, her fencing master George exposes a world hidden within London: demons prey on and possess humans, and George leads the men who hunt them both. Evadne must make a choice as to where her loyalties lie, even as Dorina is drawn closer into Lady Henry’s influence, and must make choices of her own.
If that had been the extent of Tanzer’s story, it would have still been entertaining thanks to her skill with prose, but the ending would have been woefully predictable. Thankfully, Creatures of Will and Temper is far more multifaceted and insightful than a cardboard-flat tale of shining good versus darkest evil. The characters and their motivations are deliciously complex, the plot twists are total surprises, and it wasn’t long before I realized that I had no idea who to root against or how it would all end. (Said ending is both satisfactory and melancholy.)
Tanzer captures the combined soot and glamour of late-Victorian London perfectly, and the way Evadne and Dorina each react to their own interests and each other’s display a delightful level of research and empathy. Evadne thrills at the physical challenge of fencing, but is scandalized at the thought of wearing trousers, and desperately hopes for a companionable marriage. Dorina longs for recognition and debate with her fellow art appreciators, is almost-completely content within herself, and is endlessly entranced by the wider world outside her country home. Though they squabble and have genuinely painful disagreements, the sisters love one another, and that relationship provides the bedrock for everything that happens within Creatures of Will and Temper.
Tanzer also does an excellent job of replicating the style and sensibilities of The Picture of Dorian Gray and other novels of the time period while reveling in the freedom of 21st-century publishing standards, which allow her to make frank period-appropriate references to homosexuality and other behaviors which, in Wilde’s era, were punishable by stints in prison (or worse). The end result is a unified novel which tells a story in the language and customs of a particular time, and yet can be more honest about the people of that time than someone like Wilde ever could.
The descriptions are sumptuous; Tanzer uses her gift for describing architecture and fabric to perfection here, especially when Dorina buys herself exotic clothes to wear at one of Henry’s “inner circle” meetings. Descriptions of rooms, foyers and hallways are lush, even if public buildings and gardens often seem strangely empty of people. And the story does an excellent job of layering the clues in a tale where most of what is happening is going on beneath the surface of conversations about art and theater, or gardening and botany.
The strength of Creatures of Will and Temper for me, however, was the power of the relationship between Dorina and Evadne. The sisters spar and fight nearly constantly; they are very different people and each has wounded the other more than once. The tale comes down to whether their love is strong enough to save them. This was a believable dynamic; I ached for Evadne every time she felt wrong-footed and feared ridicule; and I felt for Dorina every time she wondered why her sister would not simply accept her. Just like real siblings, even the most casual remark between them can start a quarrel, like when Dorina sees Evadne coming home from a fencing lesson.
“You’ve been fencing,” she said, and even to her own ears it sounded like an accusation.
“No, I went to the Seventh Annual All-London Lemon-Sucking Competition. I won a prize! But as you can see, the competition was quite fierce, so I ought to go and change clothes before supper.”
On the other hand, the character of Basil Hallward was not successful for me. Certainly he is grieving for his dead friend and mooning over the beautiful portrait he created, but this seems more like homage to Wilde than anything needed for Tanzer’s story. Basil blames Henry for Oliver’s death, but never acts on that blame. Actually, Basil never acts on the page at all. He is a passive character. Secondary characters like Jonas and Mr. Perkins make up for that, but this was a small disappointment.
There was, I think, an Easter egg or at least an in-joke for readers who live in states where recreational marijuana has been decriminalized. I don’t think I can say anything more than that without creating a spoiler.
Creatures of Will and Temper is definitely different. It is slow, with aspects of a novel of manners, that builds to a suspenseful and satisfying conclusion. It’s thought-provoking, and it pays worthy homage to the controversial work that inspired it.
I hope to be reading this over the New Year’s weekend.
I hope you will, too!
This sounds like a book I would love!
I definitely think you’d love this one. :)