Rosalind Laker: Warwyck’s Wife and Claudine’s Daughter

At the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard sells his wife at an auction, an impulsive act which he later regrets and which haunts him for the rest of his life. This horribly cruel and barbaric custom really did take place in England between the 17th and 19th centuries. Rosalind Laker’s 1978 novel Warwyck’s Wife – the first in a trilogy – opens with a similar scene in which a farmer puts his unwanted wife Kate up for auction at a market in Brighton, parading her in front of the crowd with a halter round her neck like an animal.

Among the men who decide to bid for Kate are nineteen-year-old Harry Warwyck and his older brother Daniel. Harry has the best of motives – he has fallen in love at first sight and wants to prevent Kate from being bought by someone who will treat her badly – but Daniel has seen an opportunity to obtain the wife he needs in order to claim his inheritance, Warwyck Manor. To Harry’s disappointment, it is Daniel who is successful…but will he be happy with his new purchase? It’s not the most pleasant or uplifting start to a novel, but Rosalind Laker does a good job of conveying the shame and degradation Kate feels because of her husband’s actions combined with relief at being released from her unhappy marriage and given the chance to start a new life.

Warwyck’s Wife is described as a romance, but there’s certainly nothing very romantic, in my opinion, about the relationship between Daniel and Kate. Daniel makes it clear at the beginning that he wants Kate only because he believes she can be useful to him, and although his feelings for her do begin to change, he is too obsessed with another woman – Claudine Clayton – to appreciate what he has in Kate. Daniel is a thoroughly unlikeable character, actually: he uses and discards Kate as it suits him; he hides the truth from Claudine; and the way he behaves towards Harry is hardly very brotherly either. Not my idea of a romantic hero – not that every book really needs a hero, of course. Kate, on the other hand, is a lovely person, although her devotion to the undeserving Daniel really frustrated me and I couldn’t understand how she could possibly have preferred him to Harry!

Luckily, there is a lot more to this novel than the ‘romance’. Another major part of the plot involves Daniel’s career as a boxer and his ambition to become a champion prize-fighter. The novel is set in 1826, during the reign of George IV, and although I have no interest in boxing in its modern form, I did find it interesting to read about Daniel’s preparation for his fights (or ‘mills’ as they were called), the hours of practice he puts in with his trainer, Jem Pierce, and the spectacle of the mills themselves, which attracted large crowds and were sometimes held illegally, at risk of being stopped by the local magistrate. It seemed a much more violent and chaotic sport than its modern equivalent too, unsurprisingly with little regard for the health and safety of the participants.

There is also a storyline involving Daniel’s plans to develop the little coastal village of Easthampton into a seaside resort similar to Brighton. As you can imagine, this causes a lot of conflict as the scheme meets support from some of the villagers but fierce opposition from others as new workers are brought in to carry out the construction work while existing businesses find themselves under threat. This subplot gives the author a chance to highlight social injustices and the difference in attitude between Kate and Daniel, as Kate does everything she can to improve the working conditions of the builders, masons and labourers while Daniel cares only about money and productivity.

Warwyck’s Wife is not a perfect novel but I found more to like than to dislike and went straight on to read the sequel, Claudine’s Daughter.


Claudine’s Daughter begins about twenty years after the previous book ends and introduces us to Lucy di Castelloni, Claudine Clayton’s daughter. Lucy has lived in Italy all her life and was married off at an early age to a much older man. Now, following her husband’s death, she has decided to come to England to see where her parents grew up and to find out whatever she can about her family and her origins. Arriving in the town of Easthampton, she quickly catches the eye of three very different men. The first is Richard Warwyck, Daniel’s son; the second is Timothy Attwood, who is distantly related to Lucy’s family; and the third is Josh Barton, who has ambitious plans that could affect the future of everyone in Easthampton.

Although this is very much the story of Lucy and the other ‘second generation’ characters, some of the characters from Warwyck’s Wife appear again too, including Daniel, Kate, and (very briefly) Harry. There’s also a new set of secondary characters: Emmie, the landlady of the house where Lucy takes lodgings; her daughter Meg; and Meg’s lover, a local fisherman. Lucy’s romantic entanglements form a large part of the novel but, like the first book, it is more than just a romance. It’s also a story about the uncovering of family secrets – and while the reader already knows what these secrets are (assuming we have read the first book in the trilogy), Lucy and most of the other characters do not. This means the plot is quite predictable, but the interest is in waiting to see how and when the truth will be revealed.

The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, was seeing how Easthampton, which was only a small village in Warwyck’s Wife, has grown into a thriving resort with piers, pavilions, hotels and theatres. A source of conflict throughout the novel is the question of whether or not the town should be connected to the railway network. Richard Warwyck is in favour as it will allow the area to develop further, but Daniel (whom I still found impossible to warm to) doesn’t like the idea of opening up access to the resort to large numbers of working class people and destroying the select atmosphere.

There is a third novel about the family – The Warwycks of Easthampton – but I don’t own a copy of that one yet and I think I’ve read enough about the Warwycks for now. Maybe I will read it at some point, but there are other books by Rosalind Laker that sound more appealing to me at the moment.

More mini-reviews: The Sea Road West; Circle of Pearls; The Silver Swan

Time for another trio of mini-reviews! I’ll start with The Sea Road West, a 1975 novel by Scottish author Sally Rena. Set in a small community in the Scottish Highlands, the novel begins with the death of the parish priest, Father Macabe. It’s not long before a replacement arrives, but Father James, being young, idealistic and English, is not quite what the people of Kintillo were expecting. Struggling to settle into his new home and job, Father James is sure that he is destined to remain an outsider; the only person with whom he feels any connection is Meriel, the granddaughter of the elderly Laird. As his relationship with Meriel develops, there is a sense that it can only end in tragedy for everyone concerned.

I found this a strange and atmospheric story. Although it’s short enough to be read in just a few sittings, the pace is slow, with not much actually happening until the final pages. Instead, the focus is on the characters; there are not many of them, but as well as Father James and Meriel and her family, we get to know Miss Morag, the eccentric housekeeper obsessed with memories of Father Macabe, and Magnus Laver, a retired doctor with an unhappy past who lives alone in a tiny cottage and seeks solace in alcohol. They are not a particularly likeable assortment of characters and the overall tone of the novel is quite a sad, melancholy one. There are some nice descriptions of the Scottish countryside and coastline, though, and an exploration of one of my favourite themes – the coming of change and progress to a community which still clings to the old ways and old traditions.

The Sea Road West was an interesting read, but the next book I’m going to write about here, Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker, was more to my taste. Set in 17th century England and spanning the eventful period of history from the end of the Civil War through to the Restoration, the plague and the Great Fire of London, this is the story of the Pallisters, a Royalist family who live at Sotherleigh Manor in Sussex. Being on the losing side in the war, the family go through a great deal of turmoil during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule before King Charles II is restored to the throne and their fortunes change again.

There are several romantic threads to the story; our heroine, Julia Pallister, is in love with her brother’s friend, who happens to be Christopher Wren, the architect and scientist who would become famous for redesigning St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, but she is also romantically involved with the son of a neighbouring Roundhead colonel. Meanwhile, Julia’s brother Michael rescues a young woman from being hanged and brings her home to go into hiding at Sotherleigh – but before their relationship has a chance to go anywhere, he is forced to flee the country for exile in France. There’s more to the story than the romance, though. I loved the drama of the plague and Fire sections, the triumphant return of Charles II to London, and the descriptions of the ribbon-making business Julia establishes.

On the negative side, I thought the book felt longer than it needed to be and there were too many changes of perspective, sometimes several times within the same page, making it hard to become fully absorbed early on. Although I did enjoy Circle of Pearls, I think it suffered from being read too soon after Pamela Belle’s excellent Wintercombe, which is also set in an English country house during the Civil War and which, in my opinion, is a better book.

Back to a modern day setting with the final book I want to discuss in this post, Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan, one that I think will particularly appeal to classical music lovers, although with a plot involving secrets, lies and family drama, there’s enough to interest non-musical readers too.

When Mariana’s father, the world-famous cellist Alexander Feldmann, dies just days after his ninetieth birthday in 2010, Mariana expects to inherit his beloved cello, a Stradivarius known affectionately as the Silver Swan. However, when the will is read, she is shocked to learn that he has left the valuable instrument to Claude Roselle, one of his former students. The fate of the cello brings Mariana and Claude together and as they get to know each other and to understand the reasons for Alexander’s choice, Mariana must decide whether or not she is ready to give up her claim to the Swan.

The Silver Swan is not a bad novel – it’s quite a pageturner in fact – but I finished it with a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Half of the novel is written from Mariana’s perspective and half from Claude’s (in the form of alternating chapters) which I thought worked well as they are both equally important to the story. However, I struggled to engage with either of them; they didn’t seem like real people to me, although that could be partly because the world they live in is so different from my own that I just couldn’t identify with them. There are some plot twists, but I found them too easy to predict and wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. Anyway, this was a quick read and one that I enjoyed without feeling that it was anything special.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them tempt you?

Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker

Gilded Splendour First published in 1982, this is the story of the famous 18th century cabinet-maker and furniture designer, Thomas Chippendale, author of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director. Not knowing anything about Chippendale before beginning this book, I was interested in learning more and curious to see why Rosalind Laker had thought he would make a good subject for a novel.

It seems that the amount of information available on Thomas Chippendale is limited; although there are plenty of documents which shed some light on his professional career, we know very little of his personal life, which leaves a lot of scope for an author to use his or her imagination. And use her imagination is exactly what Rosalind Laker does, intertwining Chippendale’s story with that of Isabella Woodleigh, who provides a love interest for Thomas throughout the novel – and who is a completely fictional character.

At the beginning of the novel, Isabella is staying with friends of her father’s at Nostell Priory, a grand estate in Yorkshire, while she recuperates following an illness which has left her weak and frail. When she takes delivery of a wooden wheelchair made especially for her by a local carpenter’s apprentice, she is so grateful and impressed that she becomes determined to meet its creator. This is how Isabella is first brought into contact with Thomas Chippendale, a young man who is just starting out on a career in furniture design.

It’s not long before Isabella falls in love with Thomas and at first it seems that her feelings may be returned – until Isabella’s envious younger sister, Sarah, arrives for a visit and immediately begins to cause trouble. Left with no choice other than to marry the wealthy politician Nathaniel Trench, a man she knows she will never love, Isabella’s life starts to follow a very different course to the one she had expected and hoped for. Meanwhile, Thomas leaves Yorkshire for London, where he sets about establishing his own business. His path crosses with Isabella’s again and again, but is there still any chance that Isabella’s dreams will come true?

With a lot of focus on Chippendale’s love affairs, this book will probably be enjoyed by fans of older-style historical romances. Having said that, I didn’t find this a particularly romantic story, mainly because so many of the characters were so difficult to like. While I admired Thomas for what he achieved as a craftsman, I lost respect for him during an incident with Isabella’s sister, Sarah, early in the novel, and after this I wished Isabella would just forget about him and move on. The other men in Isabella’s life treat her badly too, as does Augusta, her own mother – and Sarah is a horrible, manipulative person, with no real explanation given for why she is so cruel and vicious towards everyone she meets.

Despite disliking most of the characters, including the hero, I still found this an interesting read with more to offer than just the romance. We are given a lot of information on architecture, furniture making and interior design; it was impressive to see the amount of effort and hard work which Chippendale put into perfecting his skills and learning new ones – including carving, veneering, marquetry and gilding. I particularly enjoyed reading about the dolls’ house Thomas creates at Nostell; so much care and attention to detail was required to carve miniature bedposts and create little frames for tiny paintings and mirrors.

Gilded Splendour provides some fascinating insights into Thomas Chippendale’s life and work. The only problem is that with so much of the novel devoted to his relationship with an imaginary character, it’s difficult to know which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. As long as that doesn’t bother you, I think this book is definitely worth reading.

I received a copy of Gilded Splendour via NetGalley for review.

My commonplace book: May 2016

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


He could put the young king aside as some nameless bastard; he could take England into his hand to shape to what greatness he would. In that moment, he never questioned his power. It was his to claim kingship or forgo it. On the strains of the dirge drifted to him a sound of King Edward’s voice: “Richard hath failed me never; him I do well to trust!”

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1913)


Vaux le Vicomte

The scaffolding had disappeared, flowers and shrubs were gradually covering the bare earth, bringing the flowerbeds to life, and Vaux was slowly taking shape, little by little revealing its full majesty.

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée (2016)


Thus at two on a Sunday morning, on the second day of September, in the year of our Lord, also the year of the Beast, 1666, London begins to burn.

Fire by C.C. Humphreys (2016)


Phileas Fogg

The mansion in Savile Row, though not sumptuous, was exceedingly comfortable. The habits of its occupant were such as to demand but little from the sole domestic, but Phileas Fogg required him to be almost superhumanly prompt and regular. On this very 2nd of October he had dismissed James Forster, because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873)


Even after all this time, grief threatens to overwhelm me when I think about my family…so powerful, so vigorous, yet all destroyed in a few short years. But still, we left our mark on history; never again will the world see our equal.

The Sons of Godwine by Mercedes Rochelle (2016)


Mary Anne Clarke

This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954)


“The worst of it is, I’ll have to tell him so myself. He’ll never dare to mention the subject again, after what I said to him that night he proposed last. I wish I hadn’t been so dreadful emphatic. Now I’ve got to say it myself if it is ever said. But I’ll not begin by quoting poetry, that’s one thing sure!”

Love and Other Happy Endings edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)


She could not even recall his features properly nor remember the colour of his eyes, but she could recall how her heart had leaped when he looked at her. She could remember the sound of his voice but not the words he had spoken, as one remembers the perfume of a flower long after it has been pressed out of shape between the pages of a book.

The Queenmaker by Maureen Peters (1975)



Sometimes the apprentice fainted with exertion and had to be revived with a cup of water dashed in his face. Thomas often thought, when a veneered surface had been subsequently polished to a satin-like shine, that it was doubtful if the future owner of the piece would ever have the least idea what sweaty, strength-wrenching effort went into the making of it. Hell held no fears for him. It could be no worse than a veneering shop.

Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker (1982)


“Jack, Jack,” cried Stephen, running in. “I have been sadly remiss. You are promoted, I find. You are a great man – you are virtually an admiral! Give you joy, my dear, with all my heart. The young man in black clothes tells me you are the greatest man on the station, after the Commander-in-chief.”

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (1977)


Favourite book this month: Around the World in Eighty Days