Review 2018: A Death at Fountains Abbey

Thomas Hawkins escaped from the gallows at the end of the last book in this series, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, but Queen Caroline is still holding a threat over him—her knowledge that his beloved Kitty is a murderess. The Queen has received a request for help from John Aislabie, who has been threatened by mysterious letters. But Aislabie was the mastermind behind the South Sea Company scam, and the Queen fears that he did not destroy the green ledger of its accounts, which would show how much the Crown gained from the scam while so many others were ruined. So, she sends Thomas ostensibly to help Aislabie but really to search for the ledger. He takes with him Kitty, who now poses as his wife, and his dangerous ward, Sam Fleet.

In Yorkshire, he finds Aislabie behaving like a victim of the South Sea scandal instead of its perpetrator, claiming he took the fall for more important people. Yet he seems to have plenty of money, which he is spending on his horses and his grounds. He is not well liked, claiming common land as his own and proclaiming as poachers the families that have farmed and hunted it for centuries. In fact, Thomas finds no lack of suspects for the nasty threats Aislabie has received.

Another strange situation concerns Mrs. Fairwood, who is living with the Aislabies. She has presented herself as his daughter, thought to have been killed in a house fire thirty years before. As her bona fides she has brought along a letter from a servant who disappeared on the day of the fire and a brooch that belonged to Aislabie’s first wife, who also died in the fire. Mrs. Fairwood is also being threatened.

This is another excellent mystery/thriller in this series with its scapegrace hero and heroine. The series books always seem carefully researched and the settings authentic. The ending is quite suspenseful.

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Review 1872: The Bass Rock

Told in three compelling narratives that take place over centuries, The Bass Rock is a novel about the history of violence toward women. The novel is located on the banks of the Firth of Forth, an area of Scotland dominated by the Bass Rock.

Early in the 18th century, the local priest comes upon some young men raping a very young girl, Sarah. The priest rescues her, but the young men claim she must be a witch because she enchanted them and forced them to do it. Soon, the men have burned down the priest’s house, and the entire household must flee toward the beach.

Post-World War II, Ruth and her husband Peter have recently moved into the big house in North Berwick. Ruth doesn’t quite understand the reason for the move, since Peter works in London. He says it is for the benefit of his sons by his previous marriage, Christopher and Michael, but they are being sent off to school. Soon, newly wed Ruth finds herself left very much on her own with only the housekeeper Betty for company. She begins to discover some secrets in the family.

After Ruth’s death as an old lady, Michael’s daughter Viv is hired by the family to sort through the things left in the house so it can be sold. She has recently had some mental issues and feels like she is the family failure. Almost despite herself, she befriends Maggie, a homeless occasional sex worker who has an interesting take on things. Maggie tells her there is a ghost in the house.

This is a powerful novel. Although its theme is grim, its main characters are relatable and sometimes likable. I loved All the Birds, Singing, and this is another winner from Wyld.

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Review 1852: A Room Made of Leaves

Even from the Editor’s Notes of what purports to be Elizabeth Macarthur’s memoirs, we get a hint of what’s coming—the husband getting the credit for establishing the wool industry in Australia while the wife did all the work. The husband revered as an important founder of the nation when he was actually disliked and hated during his life and was away for many years.

As Elizabeth grows, she loses her family—her beloved father to death, her mother to a second marriage, her grandfather to her own marriage. She learns to hide her real self behind a docile, submissive mask. When she meets Ensign James Macarthur, part of her sees him for who he is, but she is curious and has no prospects, and her curiosity ends in her pregnancy. Her first lesson in her husband’s character comes before marriage—James is more interested in the pursuit than the capture.

James is in fact ferociously ambitious, but his touchiness about his lack of breeding makes him angry enough to work against himself. Elizabeth learns he is vengeful and likes to weave vast conspiracies to advance himself and bring down others. But his judgment is poor.

Posted to Gibraltar, James sees the possibility of a posting at the newly established prison in New South Wales as an opportunity and believes the brochures extolling the new colony. Elizabeth is skeptical, but she handles James poorly and finds herself on her way, again pregnant and with a new baby. However, eventually she discovers opportunity when James finagles 100 acres of Australian land by his manipulations of the governor. She and her two convict servants begin establishing a herd of sheep.

I found this novel vivid and deeply interesting, as Elizabeth learns how to handle her horrible husband and make a satisfying life for herself and her children. The novel evokes the raw early days of the 18th century colony as well as, occasionally, its beauties. I read it for my Walter Scott project and liked it very much.

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Review 1835: Kidnapped

His mother long dead and his father recently having passed away, young David Balfour is ready to set out to seek his fortune. But family friend Reverend Campbell gives him a letter from his father to take to an Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws near Edinburgh. David hopes that if he has a wealthy relative, the man will help him to a career.

When David arrives at Shaws, he finds it incomplete, almost a ruin, and Ebenezer Balfour to be unwelcoming. He is David’s uncle, but right away he sends David up a ruined staircase almost to his death. Then, once his uncle has agreed to go with David to a lawyer, Mr. Rankiller, to discuss David’s inheritance, he has David kidnapped by an unscrupulous sea captain, who is supposed to take him to work as a white slave on a plantation.

North of Scotland, the ship David is on runs over a small boat in a storm, and the only survivor of the boat is Alan Breck Stewart, a Highland Jacobite who has been collecting money for his exiled chief. He has saved his belt full of gold, but David overhears the ship’s officers planning to kill the man for his money. David alerts Stewart, and the two hold off the crew in the roundhouse, ending with a much-depleted crew. Ultimately, this results in a shipwreck.

Beached in the far northwestern Highlands, David and Alan must avoid capture by the English army while they journey to Edinburgh to reclaim David’s inheritance and find Alan another ship for France.

This novel was my favorite Stevenson book as a child, so I was curious how I would view it now. I enjoyed it very much. David and Alan are interesting contrasting characters, and the novel gives a good idea of living in the Highlands in 1751. It’s full of adventure, too, a fun read.

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Review 1753: Faro’s Daughter

Max Ravenscar is exasperated when his aunt, Lady Mablethorpe, comes to consult him about Adrian, his young cousin for whom he is a trustee. She reports that Adrian has fallen in love with a girl from a gambling den and means to marry her. Ravenscar assumes the girl will have to be bought off.

When he meets her in her aunt’s home, which has indeed been converted into a gambling den, he is surprised at her well-bred appearance and demeanor. However, when he makes his offer, he finds she has turned into a termagant.

Deb Grantham, for her part, has no interest in entrapping naïve young men into marriage. Nor is she interested in Lord Ormskirk, who unfortunately holds some of her aunt’s debts and the mortgage to her aunt’s house. However, she is so angered by Ravenscar’s proposals that she decides to pretend she wants to marry Adrian and to behave as vulgarly as possible.

Even though this is not one of my very favorite Heyer novels, it is still great fun. It has some potentially melodramatic twists to it that are saved from seriousness by a feisty heroine who is not to be defeated.

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Review 1749: The Life of Sir Walter Scott

I happened to read a comment that Sir Walter Scott had led a sad life, which made me realize that I knew nothing about him. So, I looked for a biography, but I might have done better to look for a used book. I was concentrating on not getting a print on demand book but ended up with one anyway. Boy, I hate those things.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Scott’s life sad. He overcame childhood disease that sounds like polio and resulted in a withered, weakened leg. However, because of strenuous exercise, he became remarkably fit until the strains of later life.

He was also crossed in love but overcame that as well, and two years later formed a lifelong attachment to his wife, Charlotte. He remained warm friends with the man who married his first love, Wilhelmina Stuart.

In actuality, Scott was successful at everything he did until the stresses of later years resulted in several strokes. Even then, he was amazingly productive. However, a collapse of a series of businesses, for which he was in no way responsible but took responsibility for, resulted in the ruination of him and his partner in a printing company, and he was doggedly repaying his debts the last few years of his life.

The book is interesting enough for about half the time, but the problem with it is that the author is obsessed with the biography written by Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart. Although Wright frequently criticizes Lockhart’s wordy, “journalistic” writing style, this book would have been half as long if Wright wasn’t concerned to refute practically everything Lockhart said about Scott, even to the point of repeatedly calling Lockhart a liar. The problem with this for readers who have not read the Lockhart book is that they therefore don’t care.

As for my edition by Borgo Press, it was full of typographical errors and oddities, probably as a result of an old text being machine-read with no subsequent human editing.

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Review 1679: Evelina

I haven’t read much 18th century fiction, but when I made my Classics Club list, I wanted to pick books from a variety of centuries. So, I picked Evelina.

Evelina’s heritage is unfortunate. Her grandfather married a vulgar woman much below his class and died without providing for his daughter, Caroline, leaving everything to his wife. When Caroline was old enough, her mother tried to force her to marry a cousin. Caroline instead eloped with Lord Belmont, but when her grandmother cut her off without a penny, Lord Belmont threw her off and denied they were legally married. After her mother’s death, Evelina was raised in isolation by the elderly Reverend Mr. Villars, who had been her grandfather’s tutor and had also raised her mother.

When Evelina gets an invitation from Lady Howard to visit London, Mr. Villars is reluctant to let her go because of her family history. But Mrs. Mirvan, Lady Howard’s daughter, offers to take great care of her. Evelina makes some social errors at her first appearances, for example, agreeing to dance with Lord Ormond when she has already turned down Lord Lovel.

Evelina is immediately attracted to Lord Ormond but she is barely able to speak to him at the dance and keeps making mistakes or having people impose upon her, so that she fears she creates a wrong impression. She herself is the typical 18th century heroine, virtuous, compliant, and innocent.

Later, her vulgar and coarse grandmother, Madame Duval, appears in London and demands her attendance. Evelina meets a series of ill-mannered and socially inferior cousins who keep putting her into embarrassing situations.

This novel is a social satire that pits the innocent, gentle Evelina against a number of snobbish or sexually aggressive members of the upper class and against the crassness of her relatives in the merchant classes. Some modern readers may struggle with the elaborate speech. That didn’t bother me, but my patience was a bit tried by the middle section of the book, in which Evelina is on a long visit to her grandmother and rude cousins. In that section as well as those featuring Captain Mirvan, I had a hard time believing anyone would behave so badly.

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Review 1658: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

My curiosity about this subject was piqued by seeing the movie starring Kiera Knightly. Predictably, the movie exaggerated the story of Georgiana’s home life and left out her role as a serious political negotiator. (Those scenes of her on the podium don’t really count.) For the Duchess of Devonshire was a complicated person, intelligent but too trusting, generous but also profligate, adored by most but not by her own husband, a savvy politician, a serious amateur scientist, an author who never published under her own name, and an important figure in 18th century social and political life whose legacy was either purposefully erased by rivals or too-proper Victorian descendants or overlooked by historians.

Georgiana’s home life was exciting enough to provoke the prim, for, married at 16 to a husband who was cold and unloving, she was full of insecurities that eventually led her to live most of her married life in a ménage with her husband and Lady Elizabeth Foster, her husband’s mistress. Although Bess Foster seldom missed an opportunity to undercut her even after her death because she envied her position, Georgiana always considered Bess her best friend despite her mother’s and children’s detestation of the woman (with good reason).

Aside from Georgiana’s loyal support of the Whig Party and Mr. Fox, who may have been her lover, an overarching concern of her life was debt. Georgiana and her family all shared the trait of an inability to live within their means, despite having fortunes at their disposal. Georgiana missed several opportunities for the Duke to settle her debts by being too ashamed to admit them all, so all her life she was constantly juggling money, borrowing from one person to pay another or gambling away money meant to pay her debts.

Georgiana was a flawed but fascinating woman, and this biography reveals not only her life but her times to the reader.

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Review 1647: The 1936 Club! Jamaica Inn

When Mary Yellan’s mother is dying, she makes Mary promise to go live with her Aunt Patience in Bodmin. However, Aunt Patience’s reply to her letter after her mother’s death tells her that she no longer lives in Bodmin. Her uncle is the landlord of Jamaica Inn out on the moors.

When Mary tells the coach driver her destination, he advises her to stay in Bodmin. Jamaica Inn is a place of ill repute. Mary feels, though, that she must keep her promise to her mother.

She finds Jamaica Inn a ramshackle, brooding inn with no customers. Patience, her mother’s sister, has changed from a vivacious, pretty woman to a terrified drudge. Her uncle, Joss Merlyn, is an overbearing bully with signs of being a habitual drunk.

Days after arriving at the inn, Mary must help serve the most disreputable bunch of men she has ever seen. Later, Joss advises her to stay in her room with her covers over her head. But she looks out the window and sees evidence of smuggling.

But the secrets of Jamaica Inn go far beyond smuggling. Mary looks for a way to safely remove herself and her aunt. In the meantime, she meets and is attracted to Joss’s younger brother, Jem.

It’s been many years since I read this novel, which I reread for the 1936 Club. I found it to be a truly exciting thriller.

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Review 1635: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

This sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea is lots of fun. The opening of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins finds our reluctant, roguish protagonist on the way to the gallows. There have been rumors in the neighborhood that he murdered a man in the Borough, but this isn’t the crime he’s been found guilty of.

The story begins with Tom in the street at night on the way home from his usual carouse. He hears the cry of “Thief” from inside the house of his neighbor, Mr. Burden, but when he tries to help, the neighbor becomes abusive. It is Mr. Burden who has been spreading the rumors about Tom.

When Mr. Gonson, the magistrate, comes to investigate the supposed crime, Tom finds that Mr. Burden is accusing Sam Fleet, the nephew of Samuel Fleet, Tom’s friend who was murdered in the Marshalsea in the previous novel, a boy that Tom is supposed to be teaching to be a gentleman. Later, Tom, in a drunken rage, hammers on the Burdens’ door and threatens Burden’s life.

Tip: If you’re in a drunken rage, never threaten anyone’s life. The next night, of course, Burden is murdered, which Tom and his girlfriend Kitty discover when they find Burden’s maid Alice in their house covered with blood. She has come through a secret passage into their house after finding her employer dead. Tom knows that if the authorities find the passage, which he didn’t know about, they’ll assume he is the murderer. The magistrate arrests him anyway, upon no evidence, but then must release him.

Tom also finds himself embroiled in the affairs of Henrietta Howard, the King’s mistress. He undertakes a job, hired by Sam’s father James Fleet, the king of the London underworld, to meet a lady in the park. The lady is Henrietta Howard, whom he finds being attacked by her own husband, Charles. Tom is hired by Queen Caroline to try to find some dark secret to put pressure on Howard, who is trying to blackmail King George by threatening to force Mrs. Howard to return to him.

This novel is atmospheric of Georgian England, especially the nasty places, and full of adventure. It is also quite suspenseful.

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