The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge

I’m enjoying working my way through Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels but, as I suppose is the case with many authors’ work, I’m finding that the quality varies a lot. The Adventurers (first published in 1965) is certainly much better than the last one I read, First Night, but not as enjoyable as Marry in Haste, Watch the Wall, My Darling or Strangers in Company.

The novel is set towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars when, following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the defeated French army begin their retreat through Germany. The von Hugel castle lies in their path and seventeen-year-old Sonia von Hugel hides in the hayloft as her family and servants are massacred around her. When the violence is over, Sonia escapes from the castle disguised as a boy, intending to make her way to her aunt’s home across the mountains. Stopping at an inn along the way, she has an encounter with the mysterious Charles Vincent, who makes her an offer which causes her to change her plans and agree to accompany him to France instead.

In England, meanwhile, we meet Lord Denbigh and his nephew Philip Haverton, who are preparing to travel to France on diplomatic business. What will happen when their paths cross with Charles and Sonia’s? What is their connection with Sonia’s friend, Elizabeth Barrymore? And, most importantly, where does Charles keep disappearing to without explanation?

As this novel, like many of Aiken Hodge’s, is set in the Regency period, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with Georgette Heyer. The opening sequence, with the heroine dressing as a boy and meeting the hero at an inn – and the misunderstandings that follow – is exactly the sort of storyline that will be familiar to Heyer readers. After this promising beginning, though, the story becomes much less Heyer-like, with very little humour and lightness and a more serious, sombre feel. The politics of the period also form quite an important part of the novel, with Napoleon facing defeat and a plot to restore the Bourbon monarchy gathering pace.

I have described Charles and Sonia as the hero and heroine – and it did seem that way at first – but I quickly began to lose interest in them, especially as Charles was absent for such long sections of the novel (for reasons I found too easy to predict). It was disappointing that their plan to travel across Europe as ‘adventurers’, making their living from winning money at cards, didn’t really come to much and there was far less adventure in the book than I had hoped for. One character who did interest me was Elizabeth Barrymore; I felt that it was her story rather than Sonia’s that the author really wanted to tell. She is given a romantic interest of her own and although I found the way it develops predictable as well, I thought it was more engaging and more moving than Sonia’s – a story of mistakes, regrets and second chances, a bit like Anne Elliot’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Aiken Hodge wrote biographies of both Austen and Heyer, so it’s not surprising that their influence can be seen in her work.

The Adventurers is not a favourite by this author, then, but I did enjoy getting to know Elizabeth and learning a little bit about the political situation in Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Liepzig.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

First Night by Jane Aiken Hodge

I enjoyed the three Jane Aiken Hodge books I’ve read previously – Marry in Haste, Strangers in Company and Watch the Wall, My Darling – so I thought I would try another one. First Night was originally published in 1989, but has been recently reissued by Agora Books.

The story begins in 1802 in the fictional Central European principality of Lissenberg. Lady Cristabel Sallis, the teenage daughter of a British duke and politician, and Prince Maximilian, heir to the principality, are performing in a children’s performance of Orpheus and Eurydice to mark the opening of the new Lissenberg Royal Opera House. Cristabel persuades Max to switch parts with her so that she can sing the male lead, revealing her identity at the end to rapturous applause from the audience. Not everyone is so impressed, though – her father is outraged and sends Cristabel home in disgrace.

Twenty-one-year-old American heiress Martha Ann Peabody hears about Cristabel’s escapades and is intrigued. She has been longing for adventure and the chance to make an independent life for herself, so she seeks out Cristabel in England and offers to help her launch a career in opera despite her father’s opposition. With Martha’s money and Cristabel’s talent they are the perfect team and, chaperoned by Cristabel’s Aunt Helen, they make their way to Paris, then Venice, before eventually ending up back in Lissenberg again.

Opera continues to play a big part in the plot of First Night as Cristabel pursues her passion for singing and the three women meet an assortment of composers, musicians and performers, but as the novel progresses the political situation in Lissenberg becomes more and more important. I wish the author had included an author’s note at the end of the book because I would have liked to have known more about her portrayal of Lissenberg and whether she had a real place in mind. It certainly sounds like an oppressive and dangerous place to live: an absolute monarchy under the control of the tyrant Prince Gustav who stops at nothing, including murder, to get what he wants. On the outside, there’s Napoleon Bonaparte, rapidly increasing in power – and Prince Gustav must decide whether to yield to him or try to defy him.

The setting was fascinating, but I can’t really say the same for the characters. I did love Martha Peabody, who is both courageous and kind-hearted and tries to help the people of Lissenberg in any small way she can, but Cristabel was a complete enigma to me. I felt that I never understood how she was really thinking or feeling and this made her come across as a strangely shallow character considering that at the beginning of the book it seemed as though she was going to be the heroine. Based on the first chapter I had also expected a romance between Cristabel and Prince Maximilian, especially when they meet again on Cristabel’s return to Lissenberg, but because Cristabel’s emotions are kept at such a distance from the reader, I wasn’t sure how she truly felt about him or what the nature of their relationship really was.

Unlike the other three books I’ve read by Jane Aiken Hodge, which could be neatly labelled as historical romance, romantic suspense and gothic novel respectively, this one is much more difficult to classify. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a romance, although the cover might suggest otherwise. I found it difficult to get into and confusing at times, but I enjoyed the last few chapters which were packed with surprises, political intrigue and the revelation of secrets.

This book appears to be the first in a trilogy, followed by Leading Lady and Last Act; I don’t have any plans to look for the other two books at the moment, but I would still like to read Red Sky at Night, one of her earlier novels which I already have on my shelf.

Marry in Haste by Jane Aiken Hodge

This is the third Jane Aiken Hodge novel I’ve read and my favourite so far. Based on an earlier story, Camilla, which was serialised in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1961, Marry in Haste was originally published in 1969 and has just been reissued by Ipso Books. It is set in England and Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars and has just the combination of romance, suspense and history that I am coming to expect from her novels.

The saying “marry in haste and repent at leisure” perfectly describes Camille de Forêt’s situation. Having fled to England with her father, a French Comte, and changed her name to Camilla Forest to distance herself from her French origins, she has spent several years in the home of the Duchess of Devonshire. Following the death of the Duchess, Camilla found a position as governess in another household but when we meet her at the beginning of the novel she has been dismissed from her job and sent away with no money and nowhere to go.

A chance encounter with the Earl of Leominster when his carriage passes her on the road seems to provide the perfect solution to Camilla’s problems. She needs a husband, a home and some money; Leominster (or Lavenham, as he is known to his friends) needs a wife in order to claim his inheritance. In the sort of plot development which will be familiar to readers of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, Lavenham proposes to Camilla and she accepts – on the condition that it will be a marriage in name only. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Camilla to discover that she is falling in love with her husband after all…but will Lavenham, who has a distrust of women based on a bad experience in his past, ever return her feelings?

Marry in Haste is an enjoyable and entertaining novel; it’s not particularly original (as I said, it feels quite similar to some of Georgette Heyer’s books, among others) and most of the plot twists are very predictable, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to read. The romance between Lavenham and Camilla is thwarted by misunderstandings, lies and communication problems, which makes it feel very contrived at times, but it’s satisfying overall – and anyway, things which would be likely to annoy me in a more ‘serious’ novel feel much more acceptable in this sort of book. There’s also a secondary romance later in the book, involving Lavenham’s younger sister, the lively and irresponsible Chloe, and I enjoyed this storyline too.

Most of the action takes place in Portugal, where Lavenham is sent early in the novel to carry out secret diplomatic work. Camilla and Chloe accompany him there and promptly find themselves caught up in the conflict involving France, Britain, Spain and Portugal which has been escalating in Europe. There are some lovely descriptions of Portugal and enough historical detail to give the reader a basic understanding of the Peninsular War, but the focus is always on the characters and the relationships between them. I was disappointed that Lavenham kept abandoning his wife and sister for long periods while he was away on undercover work, but I can see that it was necessary for the plot and enabled them to have some adventures of their own while trying to escape the French and make their way back to the safety of England.

I’m looking forward to reading more Jane Aiken Hodge as so far I’ve only read this one, Strangers in Company and Watch the Wall, My Darling (three very different books). I already have a second-hand copy of Red Sky at Night on my shelf as well as another new reissue, First Night, from NetGalley – and I think it’s time I tried her sister, Joan Aiken’s, books too!

Thanks to Ipso Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Strangers in Company by Jane Aiken Hodge

strangers-in-company Published in 1973, Strangers in Company reminds me of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, or maybe M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series. It is set in Greece and follows the story of Marian Frenche, who is looking for a new job after finding herself at a loose end when her children move away to live with her ex-husband. Marian finds work with an agency who arrange for her to accompany a troubled young woman called Stella Marten on a coach tour of the major Greek archaeological sites. She is given very little information about Stella and her background, apart from a warning that she should be left on her own as little as possible, but after only a few hours in Stella’s company, Marian finds her to be rude, angry and irritable. It’s going to be a difficult trip!

As they set off on their tour, Marian’s time is divided between dealing with Stella’s moods, seeing the sights of Greece and getting to know the other people on the bus. Their fellow passengers include several young schoolteachers, a classics professor, an oddly-matched honeymoon couple and a handsome Greek tour guide. On the surface, they’re just a group of people hoping to enjoy a holiday in the sun and possibly learn something new along the way, but when accidents begin to befall members of the party – too many to be a coincidence – Marian is forced to accept that there could be someone on the tour who is not as innocent as he or she appears. Worse still, it seems that Marian herself could be the next target…

My first introduction to the work of Jane Aiken Hodge came a few years ago when I read and enjoyed Watch the Wall, My Darling, a gothic novel set in 19th century Sussex. Strangers in Company feels very different, having a contemporary setting, but I enjoyed this one even more. I loved the descriptions of Greece and its ancient historical sites, and with the benefit of Google to find pictures of the less famous places the characters visit, I almost felt as though I’d been on the tour myself! I did become very aware of my limited knowledge of more recent Greek history, particularly the period following the civil war of the 1940s, but although I wished I’d read up on this before starting the book, it wasn’t really a problem at all.

I’ve said that this book felt similar to a Mary Stewart novel (some of hers have a Greek setting too) and I think I was right to make that comparison because halfway through the book there’s a scene where Marian spends an afternoon relaxing with a copy of Stewart’s My Brother Michael! I don’t think Jane Aiken Hodge’s writing is as good as Stewart’s, however, and the characters are not as likeable or as well drawn (I found it hard to tell some of the members of the tour group apart). I was also slightly disappointed with the final few chapters of the book – I felt that, as the mystery began to unfold and revelations were made, the plot became very far-fetched and difficult to believe. Otherwise, though, I thought this was a great read!

I have another of Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels, Red Sky at Night, on my shelf still to be read. Has anyone read that one – or any of her others?

My Commonplace Book: December 2016

It’s time for my last Commonplace Book post of 2016. I now have twelve lovely collections of quotations and images to look back on from my year’s reading, so I think I’ll be doing this again – or something very similar – in 2017!

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realised the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken.

Howards End by E.M. Forster (1910)


Time is the tricksiest of all tricksters, and I should know. I was a jester by profession, but I never had the skills of Mistress Time. She can stretch herself into a shadow that reaches so far you think it’ll never come to an end or she can shrink to the shortest of mouse-tails.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland (2016)



Talk, inevitably, turned to the projected portrait, and he was able to describe what he wanted. “I have it all quite plain in my mind’s eye: I stand by a table, so, and I’m holding out a laurel wreath over Strephon’s head, while turning to look out of the picture, and Strephon sits on a pile of books on a table, preferably eating them.”

“All highly symbolic. Are you sure you don’t want, say, a dwarf or a blind fiddler or any other accessory? Just yourself, and the monkey?”

Alathea by Pamela Belle (1985)


Angel thought: What is this errand I am going on? Perhaps all this girl has told me is false; how do I know? Perhaps all I have heard of her is a lie, too. What is it that I have in common with her? Why do I like and trust her? For the same reason as I was hurt by the death of the manatee – we’re all females, slaves, helpless.

Night’s Dark Secrets by Marjorie Bowen (1936)



Somehow, he’d thought that as he got older he would achieve a measure of free will. When he was a man, he had often told himself after being chastised or set some complicated task of learning that no one would tell him what to do. Now he lay on his back in the dense forest, aware of the mist rising from the damp earth, the murmuring of men settling in for the night, and knew he was part of a story that had started long before he was born and would continue long after his death.

Accession by Livi Michael (2016)


“Nice!” Stella’s anger overflowed suddenly. “And this is a nice bus, and what a lot of nice people we are, this nice morning.”

Marian managed a laugh. “You’re quite right. It’s a terrible word. I used it in an essay once, and my tutor made me read Northanger Abbey before I wrote another one.”

“Oh God, Jane Austen,” said Stella.

Strangers in Company by Jane Aiken Hodge (1973)


There are misfortunes in life that no one will accept; people would rather believe in the supernatural and the impossible.

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas (1850)



The moon was full and, urged by a restless excitement, she had been unable to remain in her room. She walked without conscious direction through a grove of oleanders and came out on the shore, pale gold sands silvered by the moonlight, a line of slowly curling surf white as ivory, and a sea of violet blue. Above her the Southern moon seemed huge and very near and she felt as if she could catch it in her hand.

Forget Me Not by Marjorie Bowen (1932)


“First his secretary, seated in his master’s chair, was shot,” he said slowly. “Then his butler, who was apparently after his master’s Scotch, got poisoned. Then his chauffeur met with a very mysterious accident, and finally a man walking with him down the street got a coping stone on his head.” He sat back and regarded his companion almost triumphantly. “What do you say to that?” he demanded.

“Shocking,” said the young man. “Very bad taste on someone’s part. Rotten marksmanship, too,” he added, after some consideration. “I suppose he’s travelling for health now, like me?”

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1930)



She raised her eyes – they lighted on the masquer. The pressure of the people had forced him so close to her that their hands touched. Shore lent forward to speak to his father. The mysterious personage seized the occasion, pressed that gloved hand with ardour, and whispered in her ear.

“You have done unwisely – you might have been the beloved of a king.”

Jane Shore by Mary Bennett (1869)


“There are many forms of love, Violet. One can love a parent in one way, a sibling in another, a lover, a friend, an animal…each in different ways.”

Flora watched Violet’s face as everything it contained seemed to soften and a veil fell from her eyes.

“Yes, yes! But Flora, how can we possibly choose whom we love when society dictates it?”

“Well, even though outwardly we must do as society dictates, the feelings we hold inside us may contradict that completely.”

The Shadow Sister by Lucinda Riley (2016)


Favourite books this month: Alathea, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Shadow Sister.

As you can see, I’m very behind with my reviews, which isn’t ideal at the start of a new year. However, I do have most of them written and scheduled to be posted throughout January. For now, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year!

Seaton Delaval Hall (and more new books)

Another nice, sunny weekend (sadly now just a distant memory as the rain appears to be back again today) meant another visit to a National Trust property, this time Seaton Delaval Hall, a country house near the Northumberland coast. Only a small part of the Hall is open to the public as the central section is currently being restored – you can see the scaffolding in my first picture – but the gardens are beautiful.









I was excited to discover that there’s also a second-hand book shop at Seaton Delaval Hall. Just a tiny one with only a few shelves, but I managed to find two books I wanted to read:


I haven’t read anything by Helen Hollick but have often thought that she sounded like an author I might enjoy and after recently reading my first Jane Aiken Hodge book, Watch the Wall, My Darling, I’ve been looking out for more of her work too.

How was your weekend?

Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge

Watch the Wall My Darling - Jane Aiken Hodge I had never heard of Watch the Wall, My Darling until it started appearing in my recommendations on Goodreads, and with such an intriguing title I knew it was a book I would have to consider reading eventually!

First published in 1966, Watch the Wall, My Darling is a gothic romantic suspense novel set on the south-east coast of England during the Napoleonic Wars. As the story begins, Christina Tretton, a young American woman whose father has recently died, is returning to her family’s ancestral home, Tretteign Grange. After encountering a gang of smugglers on the journey, Christina arrives at the Grange – also known as the Dark House – and is met by her Aunt Verity, her invalid grandfather and her handsome cousin, Ross.

Settling into her new home, Christina quickly takes control of the management of the house and the servants. Impressed with his granddaughter, old Mr Tretteign decides to change his will and leave the Grange to Christina – on the condition that she must marry either Ross or her other cousin, Richard. Christina insists that she has no intention of marrying either of them, but her two cousins, who each have their own reasons for wanting the Grange, have other ideas. Despite herself, she finds herself drawn to Ross, but soon discovers that he is involved in something very dangerous – and with England expecting a French invasion at any moment, the lives of everyone at the Dark House could be at risk.

I enjoyed this book – it was a fun, undemanding read with plenty of adventure and intrigue and a touch of romance. I kept being reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, though this is not as well written or memorable as any of those, in my opinion. The historical background didn’t feel particularly strong and Christina felt more like a woman of the 1960s than the 1800s, while I didn’t find Ross quite as fascinating and attractive as she did. The introduction of two new characters towards the end of the book didn’t really add anything to the story either. Still, with smugglers, soldiers and spies, a crumbling abbey believed to be haunted, family secrets and an inheritance to be decided, there was more than enough to keep me happy!

And if you’re wondering, the title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called A Smuggler’s Song:

“Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson,
‘Baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!”