A historical novel about a lady companion who accompanies a troubled English family as they join the influx of social idealists settling New Zealand. 1982.
Dorothy Eden’s novels seem to be fairly easy to come by, at least in the used/thrift/free book market. Intrigued by the synopses of every Eden book I’ve picked up, I’ve actually tried quite a few different ones. The Shadow Wife and An Afternoon Walk are so far among those I’ll likely never finish—I plan on releasing them back into the used/thrift/free book market—but An Important Family was different.
At face value, it’s much like the other Eden novels: it centers around a female protagonist, and there’s a strong element of the gothic mystery to it. But here’s where An Important Family stays fresh, while the others grow stale: its story is placed further back in time. I ended up abandoning the other novels because their women were strong but unsure. In An Important Family, this is also the case…but this story takes place 100 years earlier, around roughly 1860. This type of woman in this time period grates on the reader’s nerves a lot less.
From the very first page, we sympathize with our heroine, Kate O’Connor. Of Anglo-Irish descent, she’s an orphan, raised by two aunts. She was engaged once, but her fiance was inexplicably killed during a recent Irish uprising. When she spots an advertisement for a companion to two high-society ladies who are about to emigrate to New Zealand, she sees a fresh beginning, an escape from the land that has brought her so much sadness.
Kate answers the ad in person, and throughout her interview, she meets only the family patriarch, Sir John Devenish. He’s a tall, self-possessed man, a man who strikes me as being eager for intellectual company. Kate is able to match his conversation, and is even won over by his idealism regarding the New Zealand colony:
I should explain that I’m a great admirer of the writings of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the coloniser. Have you heard of him? He has a dream about the ideal colony. A utopia, in fact. He says that emigrants to empty lands should not be in flight from disgrace or crime or starvation or other desperate ills. He was referring to the unfortunate convict settlements in Australia, of course.
Kate manages to convince Sir John that she is more running toward a new future than away from a gloomy past. What’s more, there’s an obvious attraction/fascination between the two of them…(But oops! He’s married. And has a grown daughter.)
During the long voyage from England to the family’s new home (a remote, mountainous sheep farm in New Zealand), Kate begins to see how thoroughly dysfunctional this aristocratic family is. During the ocean voyage Kate also develops a friendship/romance with a naval captain, and tentatively makes plans for a future with him. All the while, Kate’s young charge, the beautiful, siren-like Celina, daughter of Sir John, is kept under vigilant guard, and displays some rather odd behavior.
Celina came slowly, sobbing. Her moods were so mercurial. Her wild rebellion seemed already to have died. Kate prayed that it had. She infinitely preferred the sulky, silent girl to this disturbing creature roused by strong and shameful desires.
I’ll stop my summary there, lest I give too much away. An Important Family is a slim novel, under 250 pages in my first edition copy. It moves along at a solid clip, though, and manages to pack in so much plot, it feels like a much bigger story than one would expect from 250 pages. It also comes with a charming array of characters who form a sort of extended family, and this adds substantially to the storyline.
An Important Family also contributes nicely to my growing collection of “down-under” fiction on here, both of which have been some of my favorite historical fiction of late: Golden Urchin and Sara Dane. I’d recommend both of these ahead of An Important Family, but if you’ve already read them, or are specifically curious about the settlement of New Zealand, An Important Family is a solid contender. Now, let’s see what other Dorothy Edens I have on my shelf…