Cover image for Afterimage : a novel
Afterimage : a novel
Humphreys, Helen, 1961-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Metropolitan Books, 2001.

Physical Description:
240 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Originally published: Toronto : HarperCollins, 2000.
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Inspired by the life of Julia Margaret Cameron, Afterimage is the bold and provocative story of Annie Phelan, a maid in the home of Isabel and Eldon Dashell. Isabel is experimenting with the new medium of photography, and is inspired by Annie, who becomes her muse. The two form a close relationship, but when Eldon devises his own plans for the young maid, Annie nearly loses herself, until disaster reveals her power over the Dashells' work and hearts.

Author Notes

Helen Humphreys is the author of four collections of poetry & one previous novel, "Leaving Earth", which won the Toronto Book Award, was a "New York Times" Notable Book, & was published in six languages. "Afterimage" was inspired by an exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs. Humphreys lives in Kingston, Ontario.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Inspired by the revolutionary compositions of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who dared to use her maid as a model, Humphreys, a Canadian poet and author of the award-winning novel Leaving Earth (1998), conjures a haunted and provocative realm on a loosely managed English country estate. It's 1865 and young, beautiful, and bright Annie Phelan, orphaned and exiled by the Great Irish Famine, has just arrived as the new maid and is astonished by her eccentric employers. Brusque, self-involved, and intense, Lady Isabelle lives to take photographs, determined to prove that this new process is as artistic a medium as painting. Her kind but ineffectual mapmaker husband, Eldon, despairs over the commercialization of his once noble calling, and takes refuge in a preoccupation with the Arctic and the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. And both wife and husband are suffering from unexpressed grief over their stillborn babies. As Isabelle has Annie pose as Ophelia, the virtues Grace and Humility, and the Madonna, they enter into a complex and erotically charged relationship, while Eldon believes that Annie, who shares his love of books, is his soulmate. Every element of this beautifully formed, suspenseful, and far-reaching tale of desire, art, and conviction fascinates as Humphreys brilliantly captures the psychological convulsions not only of one tumultuous household but also of a society in convulsive flux. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Inspired by the Victorian photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, Canadian author Humphreys creatively invents the world behind the images of a costumed house maid. Acknowledging a debt to Jane Eyre, Humphreys sets her beguiling tale in the mid-19th-century English countryside, where doe-eyed Annie Phelan comes to work at Middle Road Farm. What she encounters there is alien to her strict, religious upbringing as a servant after her family died in the Irish famine. Her new mistress, Isabelle, is the unconventional daughter of local gentry and a passionate artist attempting to prove her skill in the new medium of photography. Isabelle uses her house staff as models in elaborately concocted photo shoots and discovers the obedient Annie to be an expressive and intriguing portrait subject. Viewing Annie dressed up as Ophelia, Sappho or the Madonna, 30ish Isabelle begins to feel an attraction to the younger woman the kind of attraction she no longer feels for her husband, Eldon. He is a mapmaker with ambitions to be a world explorer, and he also admires Annie, whom he calls "Phelan" when she becomes a participant in his imaginary expedition to the Arctic. He also helps her to satisfy her own obsession, which is reading, by allowing her to borrow books from his library. The atmosphere that encloses this evolving love triangle is sometimes erotic, sometimes poignant and always complicated by Victorian class issues. A fiery denouement causes Annie to question her past and reconsider her future with Isabelle. Humphreys, author of four books of poetry and the acclaimed novel Leaving Earth, has an impeccable command of imagery, and her prose finds strengths in its subtlety. A hauntingly beautiful reproduction of a Cameron photo on the jacket should pull readers to this finely wrought novel. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The year is 1865, and Annie Phelen, an Irish maid who reads Jane Eyre, arrives at the country home of Isabelle and Eldon Dashell in the south of England. The Dashells are an unusual couple for their time they have cast aside God, embraced Darwin, and are anxious to explore new worlds. Eldon, a cartographer, wishes to explore the Arctic. Isabelle's fascination with art and technology has lead her to a creative career as a photographer (her character is modeled on Julia Margaret Cameron). Each vies for Annie's heart and soul, but the more powerful Isabelle re-creates Annie into a model, muse, and finally lover. Canadian writer Humpreys, who has published another imaginative novel, Leaving Earth, as well as poetry, has produced a fascinating novel that works on many levels. It is at once moody and humorous, while (only occasionally too self-consciously) exploring the nature of art, creativity, and technology. Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries. Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Prologue The boy will remember it this way forever. His wings are on fire. He stands against a burning wall. The harder he moves his arms, trying to get free of the leather straps, the faster the flames shudder along the white feathers.     The boy doesn't see her until she's right beside him. It seems as if she has poured out of the smoke, her gray cloak flapping around her like waves on the sea. For a moment they stare at each other. He sees the flicker of fear in her young face, but that is something he thinks later--young face--much later, when he is a man. Now he thinks only, Save me, his throat seared shut. He cannot push the dry burst of words through his parched lips. It doesn't matter. She has grabbed him under the arms, holds him away from her body. Put your arms out, she says. He stretches his burning wings so they stay clear of her clothes and she runs with him like this, down the hallway to Isabelle's bedroom. There is smoke in the room but the window is open. She stands him by the door, rushes to the bed, and drags the mattress off. He sees the sparks sizzling along the trailing edge of her cloak as she tears off the bedding, stuffs the mattress through the window, and it somersaults to the earth below. She has hold of him again, leans with him in her arms over the sill.     I've got you, she says.     And then she lets him go.     The boy falls. He puts both his arms out and for a brief moment his fiery wings stay the air and he floats down. The air pushing against the underside of the wings is the same pressure as when she held him over the sill, the same feeling. The rush of fiery air as he slows above the earth. Her strong and steady hands.     This is him, flying. Chapter One Guinevere * * * ANNIE PHELAN HURRIES along the lane to the Dashell house. The coach from Tunbridge Wells let her off on the main road and she is to walk the last half mile by herself.     It is June. The narrow lane announces its summer population with Annie's every step. A magpie! A bee! The dry clicks of insects busy in the hedgerow. The country is so different from London. There, the clatter of people and carriages is constant, though sometimes, at night, when Annie was walking home from reading classes she would hear the soft, tumbly voice of a nightingale calling in the square. In London, the horizon was stacked with buildings, the air was rheumy with coal smoke. Here, the sky is huge and blue, uncluttered.     All the long journey down from London, Annie has imagined this walk, has imagined that the lane to the house will be rutted and dusty, that the house will suddenly appear as she rounds a bend, that it will be magnificent and stately. Perhaps a little decrepit. Like Thornfield Hall, she had thought in the coach. She has recently finished Jane Eyre again and this is how she imagines a country estate.     And just as she expected, the Dashell house becomes visible as Annie rounds a bend in the rutted, dusty lane. She stops walking. There it is, looking much more decrepit than magnificent. Large and sprawling, but definitely neglected. The bushes out front are straggly and tall, blocking out some of the downstairs windows with their green, swaying bulk. The stone on the upper story is crumbly with age. A sign on the gatepost says MIDDLE ROAD FARM. The last two words are partially obscured by brambles.     Annie stands there, in the lane, looking at the distant house, feeling apprehensive, wishing that she could just keep walking, that the house would just keep appearing around every bend. She needs more time to arrive here fully. The moment she enters that house, sees the rooms, meets Mrs. Dashell, all her imaginings will stop and what is real will fill that space completely. In a few steps, in a few brief moments, this world will be exchanged for that one. COOK HAS a crown of flowers in her hair. Eldon sees it when she leans over to serve him the vegetables.     The slick surface of the table looks watery in the weak window light, slopes away from him to Isabelle, at the other end, reading her book.     "Who are you this time?" he says to Cook.     She reddens. "Abundance, sir."     "Abundance?"     Isabelle looks up from her book. "After the bountiful harvest," she says helpfully.     Eldon bends his head over his plate of underdone turkey, which has been hacked from the bone in rough, stringy wedges. There's the whicker of the clock being wound in the hall. A bract of vines at the window. The cut heads of roses float in a crystal bowl, one turning slowly in the whispery light, bumping against the others, turning like a compass disk toward the thought of North. ANNIE PHELAN WAITS in the drawing room. She holds in her hands the newspaper with the advertisement and the return letter from Isabelle, because she might need these to prove she should be here. In the Dashell house the red velvet curtains are drawn back and tied, fall in heavy pleated braids to the floor on either side of the window. There are oil paintings on the walls, all portraits except for one over by the piano--cows in a field, hills in the background. The sun behind the hills has swept the grasses gold. On a side table by the door is a porcelain figurine of a naked man. Annie smooths the front of her good lilac cotton morning dress, plucks at the stray threads of her plaid shawl. Her one shawl. In summers she cuts it through to a single layer. In autumn she sews it back together again.     The door to the drawing room crashes open and Isabelle swoops into the room, the flounces of her long dress brushing the porcelain figurine off the side table and onto the rug. She doesn't bother to pick it up.     Annie Phelan bows her head.     "Oh, don't do that," says Isabelle irritably. "Sit down. You've come a long way. No need to stand."     "I'm fine, ma'am." Annie is used to the measured, careful movements of her former mistress. Mrs. Gilbey would never knock anything off a table. Annie eyes the naked figurine on the floor. It is lying face down on the rug. Should she go over and pick it up? The curve of its back looks like a small white wing.     "Suit yourself." Isabelle strides across the room to the window, strides back again. Her dress makes a breeze, her tall body carves cleanly through the still air. Her quick movements unnerve Annie. She has not expected Mrs. Dashell to be as young as this--middle thirties--and so full of energy. Her dark hair is pulled back, secured untidily in a knot with what look to Annie like hatpins. It is as though Mrs. Dashell has done her own hair by grasping it with one hand and stabbing it into submission with the other. "You've come from London?" Isabelle asks, as she strides back toward the window. "Remind me."     "Yes, ma'am. Portman Square. I worked for a Mrs. Gilbey there."     "And why did you leave her employ?"     "She died."     Isabelle stops pacing, stands in front of Annie, and, for the first time, really looks at her. She sees a dark-haired, scared-looking girl of perhaps twenty, in a worn-out gray dress, her skin still milky with youth. "I'm sorry," she says. She feels exhausted by having to conduct this interview, each useless question she utters wrests precious strength from her body. "It's just that I don't like my day's work to be interrupted."     "But"--Annie waves her evidence of newspaper and letter--"you wanted me to come today. Now. After the noon meal."     "Did I?" Isabelle glances out the window, where her real life is waiting for her return. "How can I be expected to remember what I wanted?" She turns back to Annie. "What's your name?"     Annie has two names. In Mrs. Gilbey's house she was called Mary, because Mrs. Gilbey always called her maid Mary, no matter what her given name had been. Those were the rules of Mrs. Gilbey's household. Maids were called Mary. Cooks were called Jane. Annie almost forgot her other name, living with Mrs. Gilbey. Now she is trying it on again, something that used to fit but now feels strange to her.     "Annie," she says.     "Annie what?"     "Annie Phelan."     "Irish?"     Annie hesitates. In the newspaper she holds in her hand are hundreds of advertisements for servants of all types. Some of the notices ask for "No crinolines," because the popular dress style takes up too much space in a room and interferes with a maid's ability to light a fire and sweep out a hearth. Many of the ads specify "No Irish."     "Yes and no," she says finally.     "And what does that mean?" Isabelle feels impatience rising in her again. The girl doesn't sound Irish at all. In fact, she speaks surprisingly well for a servant.     This is not like Jane Eyre , Annie thinks. When Jane arrived at Thornfield Hall she was welcomed by Mrs. Fairfax in a very generous and hospitable way. Mrs. Fairfax wasn't impatient and snappy. Mrs. Fairfax sat knitting by the fire, a cat curled contentedly at her feet. Jane was treated like a visitor. Jane was offered a sandwich.     "What?" says Isabelle again, waving her hand. Annie is shocked to see that her fingers are all stained a hideous black.     Annie closes her eyes for an instant and tries to pretend that the sharp features of Mrs. Dashell are really the soft, kind features of Mrs. Fairfax. "Born Irish. Raised English," she says slowly, opening her eyes. "My family died in the hunger. My parents. My brothers. I was given to the Cullens, who were making the passage over here. They took me because I was small enough to carry, but couldn't keep me because they had children of their own. So they left me in a workhouse and Mrs. Gilbey took me from there when I was nine years old." Annie takes a deep breath. It is the most she has said in days.     Isabelle watches Annie Phelan recount her brief life. There is something in her face that opens, when she tells her story, this story that Isabelle has heard so many times before, different versions from different Irish famine victims, but the same story. But what is different is the lace of Annie Phelan as she tells her tale, how her expression shows emotion so completely. Sadness, fear, shyness--it is all right there, all that feeling at once--and this is something Isabelle has perhaps never seen before. Or only once before, long ago, in another world entirely.     "My parents raised money to help the Irish Relief," Isabelle says. "You have nothing to fear from me there." She walks back over to the window. The noon light is high and harsh. Objects outside the room seem transparent. The tin pail on the flagstone path. The apple tree. "The position is housemaid," says Isabelle. "I can pay you twenty-five pounds per annum, paid quarterly. It is what I pay the other servants. We have a cook, a laundry maid, and a gardener. You may have an afternoon off every week and a Sunday off every month. You must make your own dresses or have them made, but we will pay for the material." She pauses. The light is flattening the apple tree, she thinks. Stepping on it. "Can you read and write? I already have a cook who can't, and the new laundry maid seems stupid as a brick. Am I to be completely surrounded by imbeciles?"     "Yes, ma'am," Annie says to Isabelle's back. "No, ma'am. Yes, I can read and write." She almost mentions Jane Eyre but stops herself. Perhaps Mrs. Dashell, like Mrs. Gilbey, doesn't approve of novels.     "Oh," says Isabelle. "I really can't do this anymore. Come here." She beckons Annie over to the window. "Look," she says, tapping the glass. "There's Wilks, the gardener."     Annie sees a leg poking out from behind a potting shed.     "He doesn't do a stick of work," says Isabelle. "He's a terrible gardener. Cuts the heads off all the flowers. Hides all day down by the cabbages. Nothing but trouble." She sighs, a long-drawn-out fluttering sigh. "I hired him because he has a gorgeous back. All sinew, and broad as this county." She looks hard at Annie Phelan, the gray of her eyes, the slightly down-turned mouth. If I hire you because you are beautiful, she thinks, will I be sorry? ANNIE CLIMBS THE narrow stairs to her room at the top of the house. She has never slept up high before. At Mrs. Gilbey's she slept in a narrow room off the kitchen, on a cot. The room was once a broom closet. In the early days, when there was a Jane, Annie would be up and in her morning dress by 6 A.M. to clean and blacken the kitchen range and grates. Later, when Mrs. Gilbey could no longer afford to keep both a Jane and Mary, Annie would be up even earlier, as she had to take on all of Cook's responsibilities in addition to her own.     Annie is to share an attic bedroom with Tess, the new laundry maid, who started work with the Dashells the week before. The room is large, has two dormer windows. Annie pats her carpetbag down on the bed by the right-hand window. The bedroom is at the back of the house, and when Annie looks out the window she can see down into the garden, all the way back to the orchard behind the old stone wall. She sees Isabelle hurrying along the path, her arms full of black cloth. She disappears into a glass henhouse near the garden wall and then Annie can see the cloudy shape of her moving about inside. From above, through the glass, Isabelle looks like the dark shift of flame in a hearth.     Annie unpacks her belongings, hangs her other morning dress and her maid's black afternoon dress in the vast wardrobe, stuffs her underthings into an empty drawer. She picks up her Bible and goes down to the kitchen. Cook is making bread. Her hands and forearms are coated with flour.     "You sort yourself out all right?" asks Cook. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Helen Humphreys. All rights reserved.