What if time is an illusion and one can remain adorned in their youthful beauty forever? Certainly this thought holds a particular allure for lovers, who, united in pure passion and an eternal ardor, would no longer be bound by the passing of time. In their novel entitled 24-Hours in the Life of Elizabeth authors Theresa Austin and Jeanne Marie Peters challenge the assumption that age-and the natural decay of body and mind-are necessary evils in the world.
The heroine of the story, Elizabeth Wells, has been dealt a very cruel hand by fate. Her father, Arthur Wells, a prominent London Lawyer, has abducted her fiancé; arguing that the aspiring theologian is an unfit (and financially unprofitable) match for his daughter. A devious man who fails to demonstrate any genuine love for Elizabeth, Arthur desires his daughter to marry somebody with more money and social status. Fearing that Elizabeth and John Law were planning to elope, this cunning fox of a man has kidnapped, or perhaps even killed, his daughter’s lover, leaving the star-crossed lady bereft of her best friend and spiritual confidante.
Fortunately the heavenly minded Elizabeth has not been left completely comfortless. On the contrary, believing that her beloved is still alive (and that he is being held captive at some hidden location), she ardently anticipates the return of John during her regular midnight vigils; at which time she dons her wedding gown and stands watch at her window, awaiting the fulfillment of her prayers (and the promised marriage). In this way she not merely retains the hope of a reunion with her fiancé, but also manages to stay young in both mind and body.
24 Hours in the Life of Elizabeth is based on a story that appeared in the London medical magazine, The Lancet, in the nineteenth century. According to author Jeanne Peters the article told of “an English girl abandoned by her lover who went insane and lost all track of time; and when seen by American travelers at the age of 74 they guessed her age as under 20.” In the novel Elizabeth finds the fountain of eternal youth by keeping herself poised in the earnest expectation of her lover’s return. By “holding herself in timelessness to wait for John’s arrival,” the heroine, like the woman described in The Lancet, appears ageless throughout the course of her life.
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Elizabeth is considered eccentric, and even crazy, by those unable to grasp her unorthodox religious views. However those willing to listen to her theological exposition of Scripture are convinced that she is not only sane but perhaps also a spiritual genius. These individuals see that her midnight vigils are merely an outward manifestation of a profound spiritual perspective. More importantly, her interpretation of Jesus’ teachings (and her spiritual exercises) fill her with empathy for other people; giving her a religious fervency that, in turn, inspires friends and family members to join her on a mission to relieve the suffering of the poor and oppressed of London.
Within the framework of the Elizabeth Wells story the authors interweave several ancillary plots and subplots. For instance, in the course of the narrative the authors chronicle the sordid family history of the Wells’ family; a back story that provides a context for Arthur Wells’ cruelty and deviant behavior. In addition, we are introduced to a collection of characters (each of which represent and espouse different points of view), who war with each other and the world, afflict themselves and their servants, and fall in and out of love. A few of these even follow Elizabeth’s noble example and dedicate their lives to improving the lot of the less privileged. Through the complex relationships-and the dialogical exchanges-of these characters the novel touches upon many of the social ills that characterized nineteenth century England and America.
Ostensibly a sort of spiritual parable, 24-Hours in the Life of Elizabeth is a metaphysical story containing elements of romance, mystery, friendship, and betrayal. Similar in style and tone to the traditional Victorian novel, the thoughtful examination of the circumstances that lead people to act certain ways-both good and evil-instills a sense of fellow-feeling within the reader. This work was a joy to read and a real inspiration. I look forward to the sequel which promises to answer many of the questions posed in part one of the novel series.