She was an foreign actress when he first met her. He was not quite a prince, but he came from an old Dutch family with money and expectations. They came from different worlds — hers in London, his in New York. They met through a mutual acquaintance, traveled the world, got married, became controversial all-caps headlines in international tabloids with the latest as: “KNICKERBOCKER MURDERS WIFE AND KILLS HIMSELF! MURDER AND SUICIDE ON THE HUDSON!”
They were the Van Duyvils, Annabelle and Bayard, principal characters in Lauren Willig’s new novel “The English Wife,” but I can’t help imagining them as the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry of their time — gorgeous and happy with a fairy tale romance. These reminders make peering into the Van Duyvil’s lives seem like a guilty pleasure.
Besides the whole murder and suicide bit (if you believe the headlines), which happens about nine pages into the book through the point of view of Bayard’s 26-year-old spinster sister Janie who finds Bayard’s body, Annabelle and Bay were practically royals in late 1890s New York, expected to wear fancy hats, entertain high society and never cause a scandal. They lived in a secluded mansion, which they named Illyria after Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and had twins they named Sebastian and Viola.
But that changes on January 6, 1899, when Bayard’s found lethally stabbed with a costume sword and Annabelle’s seen submerged in the Hudson River. The couple were to host a wondrous costumed ball that night in their new mansion modeled after the English Tudor home Annabelle grew up in. They would be have danced and laughed, perhaps, and showed the gossips how happy they were.
Instead, cousin Anne and sister Janie find Bay’s body — and the rest is printed in the presses.
Willig’s novel alternates between the past and present, between the romances of Janie and Janie’s sister-in-law. Desperate to clear her brother’s reputation (because Bayard couldn’t have killed both himself and his wife), Janie Van Duyvil recruits reporter James Burke to find out the truth behind her brother’s death. What she finds isn’t what she suspects, but madness and mixups are part of what keep “The English Wife” entertaining.
In true Shakespearean fashion, Willig introduces pairs of twins, sisters who could be twins masquerading as each other, and confusing similar-sounding names. There are an Anne and Annabelle, a George and Georgie — the characters even comment that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.
With the comedic elements and tragic circumstances, “The English Wife” is a Shakespearean problem play — one that starts with a tragedy and ends with people dancing at a funeral.
The dialogue is bit thick at times — with characters literally quoting lines from Shakespeare to each other (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), but when the characters take a bow, you take their cue and grin and applaud.