Now this was a lucky find, as I was searching through lists for a book published in a difficult year – 1972 – in my century of books. I couldn’t find out much about the author, but the tile was promising, the cover was lovely, and the library had a copy in reserve stock. I placed my order.
When the book arrived I discovered that Hester W Chapman was a biographer, who wrote about key figures from the houses of Tudor, Stuart and Hanover, and who also dabbled in historical fiction.
The opening of this story – set early in the nineteen century – held great promise:
“I cannot forgive myself. Why did I marry him? I was happy once; contented, at least. But one can never go back – and marriage seemed to be the only solution. So I shall set about remembering how it all happened: calmly, if possible. I must not despair. The rebuilding a of a life – his and mine – might, somehow, be achieved. Yet have I the heart for it? With prayer, help might come to me. I used to believe that help would not fail. Now – I am not so sure …”
Anne Milsom was leaving her home, and travelling to Pond House in Gloucester, to bring up her orphaned niece and nephew. She knew little of Neville Quarrendon, the guardian appointed by their father’s will, save that he was a distant relation, that he was a widower, and that he was an artist. Her friends were concerned that she would be living so far away, and in the household of a man they knew so little about, but nothing they could deter Anne from going to her sister’s children.
She managed the children and the household beautifully, but she found that Mr Quarrendon was not so easy to handle. He sought out her company, he expressed his admiration for her, he clearly enjoyed their conversations and the times they spent together. But he would not speak of his history, of his intentions, or of what he did during his frequent absences. And so there were many questions.
Some answers emerge as visitors came to and go from the hall. Anne learns of his attachment to her dead sister, Cecilia, and she learns of his ties to the troubled family who lived at the neighbouring Limmerston Hall. She thought she was beginning to understand events.
But then, one dramatic event changes everything. It was not the ending I expected, but the more I thought the more I realised that it was right.
Because this was not a story of drama; it was a story of people. Utterly believable, complex people. And it was a story of intrigue, set against a background rich in period detail and atmosphere that held my attention from the first page to the last.
That perfectly wrought backdrop and the lovely, subtle writing, allowed the characters to shine. A man who might have been a hero or an anti-hero, a calculating, charming villain, or a victim of circumstance and gossip. And a woman who was capable and intelligent, but who could be made vulnerable by her personal circumstances, or by society’s rules.
Those two, their relationship, and the unexpected direction that the story took, have kept this book in my head.
It’s a very good book – not quite in the class to inspire me to rush out to find everything else that Hester W Chapman wrote, but more than good enough to hope that I’ll come across more of her work one day.