Reading Notes for the novel THE TESTAMENT OF SOPHIE DAWES
A Story of Death and Resurrection
Queen Victoria and her Circle
Sophie suggests in her narrative that the English royal family were approving of (or, at the best, turned a blind eye towards) the Orléans family's ill-gotten gains. Do you think this was the case, or was the Queen and her late husband simply being kind and supportive to another royal family - especially at the time of hardship and Louis Philippe’s exile into England?
That aside, to what extent do you feel the English Royal family benefited, if at all, from the death of the Prince de Condé and his vast wealth?
Murder, or death by Misadventure?
The crucial questions addressed in the story were hotly debated for decades during the 19th century (and still are at times even today, especially in France): was Sophie really a murderess or, as she maintains in the narrative of this story, totally innocent? Did she take part directly in the killing of the Prince de Condé or was she merely complicit in the treachery of others? The alternative, of course, is that it really was a case of suicide or death by misadventure. What do you think? And how much of a role did Louis Philippe play?
Do you feel, especially in the light of Sophie’s views expressed in her conversation and letters, that the French royal family were deserving of their fate at the time of the Revolution?
What about post-Revolutionary France - and the rapid turn-around of kings that took place after the fall of Napoleon? Do you feel, in contrast, that these were worthy and capable individuals?
What about Louis Philippe? Do you think he was self-serving and vainglorious, or just one who had ‘greatness thrust upon him’ as a matter of circumstance?
Naundorff and Louis XVII
Karl Wilhelm Naundorff remains one of the most puzzling figures in history. Recent DNA evidence from 2000 suggested that he could not have been the Dauphin as he claimed. He was an impostor after all. But this has been challenged due to the unreliability of the samples used, and there have also been further DNA studies that show connections with Naundorff’s living male relatives and the Bourbon dynasty. Putting genetics aside, what do you think about his claim to have been the lost Louis XVII? Does he continue to be a victim of character assassination, and has his treatment by subsequent generations of historians been entirely fair and balanced?
The bulk of the book is in the form of a daily journal kept by an unnamed archivist working at Osborne House in the year 1862. There seems to have been a certain destiny that has brought him here, and particularly to his temporary place of residence at St Helens (birth place of Sophie Dawes). It is an experience that changes him forever. As readers we witness the following gradual metamorphosis:
A) That he alters from being a self-confident, smartly dressed gentleman to one who emulates the clothing and manner of a local inhabitant of the village. He becomes no longer recognisable to those who knew him shortly after his arrival (the Captain and Mrs C. for instance) and even becomes mistaken for a fisherman towards the end.
B) That he goes from being a confirmed bachelor to one who is in many respects entrapped by a local woman (Mrs Docka) who takes advantage of his increasing emotional vulnerability and moral decline.
C) That with each encounter with the mysterious woman on the Duver, he gradually changes from someone who prides himself in his rationality to one who is plagued by doubts and anxieties about the very nature of reality itself.
Death and Resurrection
The driving force behind the story is the recent demise of Albert, the Prince Consort. It is the subject of death, therefore, that brings the narrator to work at Osborne House in 1862. But there are also matters of ‘resurrection’ in play, especially on a personal level - of a kind of destiny, a debt to be paid. Do you feel there could be a reincarnationist explanation for what happens? In this context, consider the following:
A) The possibility that the unnamed narrator of the story might really be Sophie’s father: the infamous Dickie Dawes resurrected and returned to where he, in a former life almost a century earlier, had once lived with his family. It is he who is seen emerging from the tomb in the dream experienced at the start of the diary - a dream which takes place at Easter.
B) What parallels can be found between the story of Sophie’s childhood and the irrational pull she has over the narrator, especially towards the end? Sophie states in her letter how her father on one occasion punished her by killing her pet bird. How does this play out in the story? The narrator of the diary comes to the place of her birth not only because it is a convenient place to stay while engaged in his work, but also to study birds, his hobby.
C) Birds figure constantly and in a very obvious way. They are thought of in many cultures as messengers from the spirit world. In the early stages of the story, the narrator refers to the woman on the Duver as his ‘curious old bird.’ Later he becomes horrified by the spectacle of Mrs Docka’s brother shooting birds, and also by a gruesome encounter with a child displaying a dead bird.
D) On a minor note, though still with the theme of reincarnation, what might be the significance of his relationship with Mrs Docka and other individuals local to the area?
By the finish of the diary, has the spirit of Sophie and her father been united in death? Could we perceive this, therefore, as a ‘happy ending’ despite the circumstances?