Ridley Hall used to be a prosperous, well-maintained property, but since the death of the heir, Lieutenant Lyndon Wilder, far away on a Spanish battlefield, the house has stood shuttered and silent, and the estate has fallen into neglect. Bowed down with grief, Lyndon’s mother, Lady Charles, spends her days sitting alone in her darkened drawing-room, while her husband wanders aimlessly about the house, trying to make sense of what has happened. Tucked away in the schoolroom, Lyndon’s nine-year-old daughter Lottie, now orphaned, does her best to disguise her restlessness and to mourn a father she barely remembers.
Into this sad household comes young Anna Arbuthnot, the latest in a long line of governesses who have undertaken to educate Lottie. What Anna lacks in experience, she makes up for in intelligence, willingness, and sympathy, and her cheerful no-nonsense manner soon wins over the lonely little girl. Anna privately disapproves of Lady Charles’s morbid wish to constantly remind the child of her loss, forcing her to wear black and to spend long hours in church. Crossing Lady Charles is not wise, however, and there is very little she can do, except encourage Lottie to make friends with a neighbouring boy and to spend as much time as possible outside.
Anna finds an unexpected ally when Major Thomas Wilder, Lyndon’s younger brother and now the heir to the estate, returns from the Peninsula, where he too has seen action against Napoleon’s troops. Major Wilder is quieter, graver, and more serious-minded than his brother, and has none of the gay charm that so endeared Lyndon to his mother. Lady Charles cannot forgive him for being alive when Lyndon is not, and bitterly resents his return, certain that he is secretly rejoicing at the misfortune that has made him master of Ridley Hall. As for Major Wilder, he is exasperated by his mother’s insistence on glorifying the memory of her dead son, making him out to be both a hero and a martyr. Nothing, Major Wilder knows, could be further from the reality of war – or from Lyndon’s character.
If Lady Charles thinks Major Wilder is unfeeling, then her husband thinks he asks too many awkward questions. Why, for instance, did Lyndon enlist, when he made no secret of how much he disliked army life? And why has the estate been allowed to run into debt, with large sums unaccounted for in the books? When an unsavoury former acquaintance of Lyndon’s arrives in the neighbourhood and starts sending Major Wilder threatening letters, he knows he must do everything he can to prevent his mother from finding out the awful truth about what really happened the day her favourite son was killed – even if that means putting his own life in danger.
For fans of Georgette Heyer and Jude Morgan, here is a lovely new addition to the genre, with gossip, blackmail, duelling, scandal, desperate nocturnal errands, and secrets a-plenty – not to mention courtship, with Major Wilder falling unobtrusively but deeply in love with his niece’s governess. Contrary to most Regency novels, however, the love story is not the main focus of the plot and it was very refreshing to read about a heroine who is not obsessed with getting herself a husband. The book is more concerned with the dynamics of family life and how the death of a family member upsets the existing order, causing an uneasy reshuffling of positions. Dineley adopts the point of view of each of the characters in turn, painting a comprehensive and multi-faceted portrait of the microcosm that is Ridley and its environs. Several flashbacks also take the reader back to Spain and Portugal, providing valuable insights into the lives of both the Wilder brothers. This not only helps to understand their characters and fit the pieces of the puzzle together, but reveals the gulf between the Napoleonic battlefield and the Regency drawing-room, between the reality of war and the perception of it by those back home – which is, in fact, the main issue raised by the death of Lyndon Wilder.
Despite the more dramatic elements of the plot, this is a quiet book; it records everyday happenings: words spoken in haste or anger which cause offence, well-meaning actions that are misinterpreted, small kindnesses, minor triumphs, petty reactions, unexpected pleasures… The slower rhythm of life at Ridley overtakes the reader, so that when something sensational does occur, it has a deeper, graver impact than it would in a faster-paced novel. Quiet does not mean boring, though; neither does the central theme of grief make this is a gloomy novel (the mock-serious tone, announced by the humorously pompous title, precludes gloom). I was drawn into the world of Ridley and followed the fortunes of its inhabitants with great enjoyment – so much, indeed, that it only took me two short days to finish the book’s almost six hundred pages. I thought it a very accomplished début and I know that I will be keeping an eye out for any future novels by E. A. Dineley.
© Florence Berlioz 2013