Title: The First Violin
Author: Jessie Fothergill
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1877)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
Our heroine, May Wedderburn, is the first narrator of Jessie Fothergill’s The First Violin. Her wealthy neighbor, Sir Peter Le Marchant, wants to marry her. Even though her family is poor and the marriage would be advantageous, it is the last thing May wants. She refuses him. May is miserable in her small town life and feels that, if she had a bit of training in music, she could become a teacher and earn her own living. Luck offers May an opportunity to escape. Her blind neighbor, Miss Hallam, is going to the fictional town of Elberthal, Germany, for eye treatments to try to regain some of her sight. She offers to bring May along, both as a companion and so that May can take singing lessons.
At the train station in Cologne, May loses track of Miss Hallam and misses the train to Elberthal. Unable to speak German and lacking money, she feels despondent until she meets a handsome gentleman who happens to be going to Elberthal. They spend a magical afternoon together in Cologne, having lunch and listening to music in the cathedral, before catching the next train to Elberthal. But it turns out that everything was not on the up-and-up with him. He lied about there not being any earlier trains.
May finds him performing in the local orchestra as the first violin. In some embarrassment, May looks down instead of returning his greeting. She lives to regret this decision many times over as the man, Eugen Courvoisier, with his strict moral code, takes this as a sign that May would rather not know him and acts accordingly. He pretends not to know her even when May offers apologies and tries to pay him back the money he spent on her lunch and train ticket. This, to be honest, is the part of the book that strains credulity with me. There are other reasons why Eugen keeps his distance from May, but, for three-quarters of the novel, it seems cruel and makes it difficult to fully like Eugen. As May hopelessly falls in love with the proud Eugen, she finds some consolation in her exceptional talent for singing and her friendship with her singing coach, the town’s musical director, Max von Francius.
Our other narrator is Eugen’s friend and roommate, Friedhelm Helfen. It becomes apparent that Eugen is hiding a past, but Friedel is not the type to ask questions. All he knows is that Eugen has been a great friend to him in a time when he needed one. He also dotes upon Sigmund, Eugen’s stoic, precocious son. The dual narrative brings a different perspective on the inhabitants of Elberthal. I enjoyed reading the quiet moments between the characters. However, drama must win out, and their happy existence cannot last. Friedel and May both make excellent narrators. Friedel is almost too good to be true: loyal and kind to a fault. May’s enthusiasm for life brightens a sometimes depressing story.
My favorite part of the book is an utterly charming scene that takes place on a bridge on the Rhine during a storm. Like other Victorian novels, much of the plotting is left to coincidence and chance. This is one of those rare books that, even though my edition was over 500 pages, I wished there had been an extra 100 pages at the end to wrap up the story. Everything felt rushed in the final few chapters. This was all due to how well the characters were developed; I cared so much about them all that I wanted more. Overall, I enjoyed this Victorian novel set partially in Germany, which showed such a vast appreciation of music.