Having read and loved Pamela Belle’s wonderful Heron series, I knew I would also have to try her other series, of which Wintercombe (originally published in 1988) is the first. Although I was looking forward to reading it, I have to admit that after being so captivated by the adventures of the Heron family, I doubted whether I could possibly enjoy this book as much. Of course, I was wrong. What I found was another beautifully depicted setting, another moving story to become absorbed in and another set of characters to fall in love with (or to hate, as the case may be).
Our heroine this time is Silence St. Barbe, whose unusual first name was bestowed on her by her strict Puritan father as it represented one of the qualities he valued in a woman. When we meet Silence at the beginning of the novel, she has been married for several years to another Puritan – George St. Barbe, a man much older than Silence and with little love or compassion for his young wife. With the outbreak of England’s Civil War, George has gone off to fight with the Roundheads, while Silence stays safely behind at Wintercombe, the family’s country estate in Somerset, with her three children and two step-children.
When a troop of Cavaliers descend upon Wintercombe, however, it seems that it is not such a safe haven after all and soon the house is full of noisy, drunken soldiers under the command of the vicious and ruthless Lieutenant-Colonel Ridgeley. As she struggles to keep her family and servants safe and her lovely home intact, Silence is grateful for the help of Captain Nick Hellier who is able to provide some protection from the worst of his Colonel’s cruelty and violence. But much as Silence comes to value Nick’s friendship, she still isn’t sure whether she can trust him…he is one of the enemy, after all.
I have read a lot of novels set during the Civil War but one of the things I liked about Wintercombe (and also The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate) is that, although the progress of the war is followed and battles and significant political events are mentioned, the focus is on the lives of ordinary people, showing how, in one way or another, the effects of war eventually touch even those who have stayed at home and aren’t directly involved. A Parliamentarian house being garrisoned by the Royalist army is an aspect of the war that I haven’t read about in fiction before and I really felt for Silence and her family as they tried to prevent their beloved house and gardens from being destroyed. According to the author’s note, the model for Wintercombe is Great Chalfield in Wiltshire. I have never been there but it looks beautiful and is now on my list of places to visit if I’m in that area of the country.
There is also a romantic thread to the story, although I won’t say too much about it other than that I loved both hero and heroine and enjoyed watching their relationship slowly develop, giving them time to get to know each other – and the reader time to get to know both characters. But there are also other relationships which I found it interesting to follow, particularly the ones Silence has with her two teenage stepchildren, the difficult, troubled Rachael and the gentle, loyal Nat.
After finishing Wintercombe I couldn’t wait to continue with the story, so I moved straight on to the second book in the series, Herald of Joy. *Spoiler warning – you may wish to avoid reading the next few paragraphs until you’ve read Wintercombe.*
Herald of Joy takes up the story about six years after Wintercombe ended. Death is approaching for George St. Barbe, Silence’s husband, but it seems that his eldest daughter, Rachael, is the only person at Wintercombe who will truly grieve for him. Silence’s marriage to George has never been a happy one and even in death he manages to cause more problems for her. She and her stepson Nat are dismayed by the contents of his will, which leaves Silence reliant on Nat’s goodwill and Rachael faced with marrying a man who, as the rest of the family can see, is completely unsuitable. To complicate things further, Silence’s younger sister, the inappropriately named Patience, has recently been involved in a plot to restore Charles II to the throne and has been packed off to Wintercombe by their brother, where he hopes she will be kept out of trouble.
For Silence, George’s death means she is now free to be with her lover, Nick Hellier, after six years of separation – but Nick is fighting in Charles’ army at Worcester and is unaware of events at Wintercombe. When the battle ends in defeat for the Royalists, Nick is forced to go on the run. Will he and Silence be reunited at last?
Following Wintercombe’s emotional final chapter, I was hopeful that this novel would have a happier ending. But although some of our characters do find happiness by the end of the book (I’m not saying any more than that, of course) they have to endure more drama, betrayal, heartache and danger before they get to that point! While the story of Silence and Nick is at the heart of the novel again, I also enjoyed catching up with the rest of the St. Barbe family, their servants and friends, and seeing how they had developed and changed during the intervening years. The new characters are great too, particularly the lively, irrepressible Patience, the aristocratic Mervyn Touchet, who bears a striking resemblance to the King, and, best of all, the children’s ‘profane and Royalist’ parrot.
*End of spoilers*
I loved both of these books and will definitely read the other two in the series, A Falling Star and Treason’s Gift. However, I’m aware that they deal with the next generations of the St. Barbe family so I will wait a little while before reading them as at the moment I would probably just want more of Silence and Nick!