This book by a 19th century British author reflects many of the themes one would expect in the era of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy:
Kind-hearted but achingly poor folks being preyed upon by greedy businessmen and corrupt lawyers; lovely pure-hearted maidens; the filthy mean streets of London teaming with pickpockets, rogues and criminals; the absurd horrors of debtors prisons - but underlying it all, an avenue of escape promised by an overriding belief that there is a higher good, and a few well-placed saintly people determined to uplift the lowly.
What was surprising to me, however, was the tedious, disjointed and verbose rendering of this over-long novel. The writer is Sir Walter Besant, a bona fide scholar, intellectual and prolific author. Yet with The Orange Girl, he delivers a rambling mess of a work that is repetitive, pandering and ludicrously mawkish.
The story revolves around Will Halliday, a young man whose father is one of London's richest shipping merchants. Halliday is expected to take over his father's empire, but young Will becomes enamored with the fiddle. He desires the life of a musician. To his family, a musician is a step above a common footpad. Young Will chooses music anyway, is disowned, and is thrust into a life hovering at the edge of poverty.
The plot thickens when Will's father dies and implements a real twist in his will - he leaves £100,000 to either his son or his nephew - based on which one dies first. If the poor musician outlives his cousin, he gets the fortune. If his cousin, the avaricious Matthew Halliday, who remained in the family business, lives longer, he claims the loot.
To make a long story short - a very long story - the matter of the inheritance attracts greedy lawyers, criminals and sundry troublemakers who hover around the fate of the unclaimed fortune like flies around a steaming pile of manure. They all scheme to make the life of the innocent fiddle player Will Halliday a living hell.
So who is the "Orange Girl?" That would be Jenny Wilmot, a blissfully beautiful, overpoweringly lovely and magnificently gorgeous goddess of a woman who is the purest of pure saints - so virtuous she is willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the sake and comfort of her fellow man. She crosses paths with Will Halliday, gets entangled in his life - and so the plot plays out.
The character of Jenny Wilmot is modeled on the real-life 17th Century British actress Nell Gwyn, and something of a folk heroine who also happened to be the mistress of King Charles II.
By the way, an Orange Girl is a young woman who worked the crowds at theaters or other public events. They carry baskets of oranges and either give them out for free or sell them for pennies. They do so while dressed as risqué and revealingly as the stilted 18th or 19th Century British society allowed - they are like an Elizabethan version of a Hooter's waitress - although the Orange Girl enjoys a status more akin to a prostitute.
I have a theory as to why Sir Besant managed to deliver such a substandard heap of fiction, but since zero out of zero readers of this review have made it this far, I'll just end it here by saying that "The Orange Girl" is not a work destined to be a classic, but a work destined to be forgotten.
Download a free copy of The Orange Girl here: THE ORANGE GIRL
Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS