Imagine you are a 19th century woman who thought you knew all you needed to know about your past. You were about to leave to find work elsewhere. The school where you lived since a child would close soon. But then, as she lay dying, the headmistress told you she’s held onto a letter for two years with details that shatter your peace and all you once knew about your origins. You’re confused, heartbroken, and angry. She lied to you all this time.
“Mrs. Denton, the woman who raised her, taught her, cared for her, and now employed her, was going to die. And the life that Cassandra thought she knew was going to die with her” (5).
That’s the opening of Sarah E. Ladd’s “The Letter from Briarton Park,” a satisfying tale of mystery and romance I’ve waited to read for the last two months.
Jane Denton’s deathbed confession and a letter from a mysterious sender, Robert Clark, upended the life of young Catherine Hale in the story. The revelations led her to embark on the solo trip to Briarton Park in Yorkshire with the monetary provisions provided with Clark’s letter. That took guts. She was a lone woman living in 1811’s England. But Catherine wanted answers. She had a desperate hope to find her family. The journey would also steer the course ahead for her future.
I am a fan of Ladd because I know her to write faith-based, historical fiction with a focus on the Regency period. Her writing resembles those who wrote during the Regency period. Her novels are clean. No bodice-ripping. No outright cursing. Just great stories with action, intrigue, wholesome romances, faith-shaking-and-stirring character moments, and mystery…glorious mystery.
Her characters hit the ground running and always have a mystery to solve. That opening scene plunged Catherine into trouble right away. As she tried to piece her past together and look to the future, Catherine found herself confronted by forces that didn’t want her to succeed. At times, she appeared alone and exposed with a contact, but no family. People in the story commit crimes to try to prevent her progress.
It’s a story that will not “go gentle into that good night,” stealing a line from poet Dylan Thomas. I say this because I can’t understand why the library my local branch borrowed this book from considered this a “GENTLE READ.” Yes, on the spine of the book, someone placed a hot pink sticker with those words in caps. Hm…. Really? I looked it up it’s “a term used to describe books that contain little or no sex, violence or profanity. Often—but not always– the books have Christian themes or elements.” I’ll allow it.
This novel is the first in Ladd’s new series, “The Houses of Yorkshire.” Some of the texts that came to mind while reading were Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North & South” and Jane Austen’s “Emma.” (Click the links for summaries.)
Just the name “Catherine Hale” made me instantly happy because it’s so wonderfully close to “Margaret Hale” in “North & South.” (Thank you, Melanie McGurr for recommending that treasure of a tale.) Catherine’s friendship with Betsy resembled Margaret’s friendship Bessie Higgins. She bravely helped the sister of James Warrington, a mill owner who now owns Briarton Park, and they in turn take an interest in her plight. Unlike Margaret, Catherine didn’t seem as concerned about social etiquette. She recognized she needed to work and enjoyed teaching. But for it closing, I had the impression Catherine would have happily stayed at Denton School for Young Ladies.
Ladd’s vicar, Vincent North, reminded me a bit…a very little bit…of Jane Austen’s “Mr. Elton” because North had been described as handsome, smitten with Catherine, and ever so attentive. Keep Elton in mind as you read. I recalled every story I’ve read or drama I’ve watched that has an estate with secret passageways, too. I love a good secret passageway, especially ones found after the sale of an estate like this story.
Ladd doesn’t always directly connect the books in her series. She makes her books somewhat standalone, which I like; however, she often will mention an earlier novel’s characters to tie into the present novel. It will be interesting to see if any of these characters make a reappearance in her next books. But I very much enjoyed this book. Worth the wait!