This fairly chunky first novel, kindly sent to me by the publishers has been a true surprise. I possibly hadn’t expected that much of it – but had been intrigued by the title and the historical setting. With a lot going on in my life just at the moment this slow reading week has been enhanced for me by having to keep company with a host of memorable almost Austenesque characters.
“Oh, Papa, this is a sad house, the saddest house I ever was in. My own misfortunes, so dire to me, are truly cast into insignificance. I dare say you will consider that as good a remedy as any.”
Set during the Napoleonic wars, this enormously readable novel is not the murder mystery that the title first suggested to me. Anna Arbuthnot, red haired, too tall, too thin and too young, a poor clergyman’s daughter, arrives at Ridley as governess to the granddaughter of Lord and Lady Charles. Anna’s charge is Lottie – a nine year old struggling to read, whose father Lyndon Wilder the golden boy and heir has been recently killed in France. The house has been plunged into a great and terrible grief, Lady Charles’s distress in her son’s death is dreadful, and so is her behaviour. Lady Charles’s blinkered view of her precious boy leads her to harsh and inflexible treatment of others. Lady Charles is not an easy employer and Anna has a difficult job to establish herself in the household still reeling from the death of its heir.
“The horse was a grey Andalusian with a long, rippling tail and a mane that cascaded down neck and shoulder. It wore the paraphernalia of the military, a black sheepskin, a blue shabraque, while it high-stepped through the village, disdaining the muddy causeway beneath its neat little feet with genteel arrogance. Its rider, for it was a cold, damp day in mid-March, with a light, chill wind blowing, was shrugged inside a dark pelisse, the fur lining visible at collar and cuff, and grey pepper – and salt overalls, with a broad stripe running down over his boots. Where he might have worn some tall helmet and plume, his head was covered with a lower, less formidable forage cap with a short gold tassel. His sword and sabretache dangled against the pale flank of the Andalusian. A mounted servant trailed some yards behind, leading a baggage horse, a piebald pony and a pair of greyhounds, the latter of which he had just caught up, for they had been running loose, as they entered the village.”
Lyndon’s younger brother, Thomas, a Major in the army, committed to the military life returns unwillingly to Ridley as the new heir. A man of strong principles and obvious military bearing, Major Wilder has been away from home for many years. Not all is as it should be he finds, the estate not running as well as it was, his father ageing daily, his mother obsessed with the son she has lost.
Living nearby is Mrs Kingston an attractive widow, who once had high hopes of marrying Lyndon Wilder. Her son Horatio a lively and engaging eleven year old is destined for the navy when he reaches twelve, a horrific seeming fate which seems excepted by everyone. Anna and Lottie are soon befriended by Horatio, a wonderfully tender friendship springing up between the two children who share a love of riding and the learning of French. When Major Thomas Wilder starts to settle into his new life at Ridley, he begins to appreciate the young woman who is caring for his brother’s daughter, recognising the difficult position she is in he seeks to help ease her load. However trouble looms when Mrs Kingston’s ailing brother drops poison into the ear of his sister who is setting her cap at the Major. The Major himself is already troubled by the truth of his brother’s service abroad and the circumstances of his death, and whether he should resign his commission and remain at Ridley or return to the military life he loves.
This is a really impressive debut novel; there is a real richness and depth to the story of these people. E.A Dineley has woven together a mass of historical detail into the story of a family coming to terms with the death of their adored eldest son. Military life, child labour, the abolition of slavery, social inequalities, war, death grief and childhood are all explored to some extent in this excellent novel. The Death of Lyndon Wilder – with accents of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte will delight both fans of such classics and lovers of well written historical fiction.