A Regency historical novel about a young woman who sets out to restore her family’s crumbling coastal estate, and in the process must throw her lot in with smugglers. 1958.
The last time I visited the library, I found the book gods were smiling down on me. Sometimes I browse the shelves morosely, nothing appealing to me, and a gloom settles over me, a gloom that sounds something like this: “I’ll never find another good book again, I’ll never be happy again, what’s the point of even trying…” Pathetic, I know.
This time, mercifully, there seemed to be nothing but good books. “Ooh, this one look good!” (Quick scroll through Goodreads on phone.) “This one looks GREAT! How on earth did I miss this one?!” The books were practically leaping off the shelves and into my arms. At last, I staggered my way over to the checkout desk. Yes, this is definitely what it looks like when the book gods smile.
One of those books in my comically tall stack was Blake’s Reach. I read and loved Sara Dane not too long ago, so when I saw another book by Catherine Gaskin on the shelf, I unhesitatingly added it to the stack. Nothing like some vintage historical fiction, especially when it’s guaranteed to be high-caliber.
The story opens with Jane, a serving girl in a coaching inn off the road to London, who’s lying in a hayloft and wishing she were anywhere but here. She spends her days watching people come and go from the big city, people from all walks of life, people whose lives all seem to be going somewhere. And then, literally, they continue on their travels, and Jane is left behind, wishing her life had more adventure.
Luckily for her (and for us readers), her story quickly acquires some adventure. A big hulking man from a nearby farm has been courting her, and he corners her in the hayloft. He attempts to *ahem* have his way with her. Jane quickly calculates that if he succeeds, she will be quickly and quietly married off to this brute. So she summons her strength and pushes him off of her. They happen to be near the edge of the loft, and off he goes, landing on the barn floor below.
He’s not killed—don’t worry, it’s not that kind of book. Instead, he has a badly broken leg and a strong desire to destroy Jane, who has probably turned him into a life-long cripple. He threatens to bring the power of his family against her; people have been transported to New South Wales for lesser crimes (see Sara Dane for examples). Jane flees to consult with the inn-keeper, who’s her stand-in mother. The stand-in mother advises Jane to flee to London and seek out her real mother, who is possibly connected enough to be able to protect her from the angry, hulking man.
And so we get more of Jane’s backstory. Her mother Anne was high-born and a renowned beauty, but made a match that displeased her father. Anne’s husband, Jane’s father, ended up dying in a debtor’s prison. Anne saw that the only way to survive was to take rich men for lovers, and Jane was sent off to the country to live with the innkeepers. It seems that Anne has forgotten about Jane these days, as it’s been a long time since money arrived at the inn to compensate her stand-in family.
When Jane makes it to London, she finds Anne living a fashionable, luxurious life, with a titled lover by her side. But it’s all a facade. Anne is deeply in debt; her lover has a title but no money. In all, Anne is quite a personality, and Gaskin draws her well. Anne is the flamboyant kind who draws admirers to her, and debt and creditors do little to curb her desire for the high-life. She’s also stunningly beautiful, even in her middle-age. People are struck by how faithfully Anne’s features, including her bright red hair, have been reproduced in her daughter Jane.
…And suddenly Anne dies. Jane finds herself head of a household that has more debts than assets. She also must look after her half-brother and a servant who is so faithful to Anne, he refuses to leave Jane’s side. (Side note: what’s with all these ridiculously faithful servants in fiction? I’m reminded of Katherine Wentworth, in which the servants also offer to stay on without receiving any pay. Am I overly skeptical, or is this I’ll-work-for-free situation in any way probable?)
Jane comes up with a plan: they will quickly and quietly sell off anything that fetches a good price, and then the three of them will leave for Blake’s Reach, the coastal estate that’s been her family’s home for centuries. Jane is unsure how her grandfather will receive them, as he and Anne haven’t spoken since Anne decided to run off and get married.
When they arrive at Blake’s Reach, they see a house that’s falling apart and clearly uninhabited. It turns out that Jane’s grandfather died a month ago. A cousin is the heir, but the cousin is currently imprisoned in France, where the terror of the revolution is in full swing. While Jane awaits news of her cousin, she falls in love with Blake’s Reach. She also learns about the smuggling trade, which provides a valuable income to families all around the area. Jane sees that in order for her penniless household to survive, they too will need to become smugglers.
It’s at this point that I feel the plot gets a little frantic. One of the things I so loved about Sara Dane was the fact that it wasn’t a long book, but it covered the lifetime of the main character. The episodic but cohesive nature of the story, the depth of the historical backdrop, and the way the characters were all kept at a slight distance somehow made Sara Dane much more realistic as a historical piece. Blake’s Reach, on the other hand, spans a few months, if that. Several of the characters, especially Jane’s male admirers, feel like they could be developed in greater detail. The book also ends in revolutionary France, where a bunch of new characters are suddenly introduced and made to seem important. And then there’s this little tiny epilogue, probably to lend it historical validity, that tells you where everyone is now buried!
With each of her books, Catherine Gaskin presents one particular niche of history. In Sara Dane, it’s the early farmers who settle in 18th-century New South Wales (present-day Australia). In Blake’s Reach, it’s the smugglers who make huge profits by avoiding high wool, tea, and brandy taxes. The parts about smuggling are the strongest ones in this story. This is surprising, too, because when I first read the plot description I was like, smugglers? It sounded like a promise for heavy doses of gothic melodrama. The redeeming factor, as it turns out, is Jane herself, who is clear-headed and strong; she brings plenty of adventure, but never melodrama.
In all, I’d recommend it if you like Regency period historical fiction, but prefer it when the action isn’t limited to drawing rooms and written correspondence. Also, if you’ve ever read a book about this time period that mentions smuggling but, like me, never understood exactly what was being smuggled, by whom, how, and why—well then, this book should answer your questions. And then you’ll be left with another question: which Catherine Gaskin book should I read next!?