Desert Isle Keeper
The Lady of the Lakes
Josi S. Kilpack takes on the love life of Sir Walter Scott in The Lady of the Lakes, a fictionalized account of the two defining romances of his life; with Wilhelmina “Mina” Belsches-Stuart, his childhood sweetheart, and Charlotte Carpenter, his eventual wife and his self-proclaimed ‘best love’.
Any scholar of Scott will tell you the facts of the story. Scott and Mina meet as teenagers, fall in love during their long walks home from church, embark upon a passionate long-distance correspondence and then become engaged. But parental interference and class differences rear their ugly heads, and in the end it emerges that Mina’s love for Walter is much different than his love for her. As they grow older she realizes hers was a childish first love, and she breaks their engagement in order to marry a moneyed man of her own class – and a close friend of Scott’s, William Forbes. Heartbroken, Walter joins up with the military, and his service takes him to England with a college friend. There, while riding on the beach, he meets Charlotte Carpenter.
Following a convent education, Charlotte has been living as the ward of Lord Downshire since her mother abandoned the family to run off with her lover and her father passed away young and broken-hearted. Charlotte’s prospects are few; her reputation besmirched because of her scandalous mother and her Frenchness (the family name was Carpentier before it was anglicised) mean she is ‘seen but not heard’ and exists on the fringes of polite society, living with her tutor in a garret on Downshire’s Easthampstead estate. Now aged twenty-five, she expects to go into a respectable trade, or to be pressed into becoming a mistress. When her benefactor arranges a marriage for her, she’s unable to go through with the ceremony to the condescending stranger, and her tutor steps in to provide her with shelter and a purpose. When Scott sees her walking on the beach she expects to spend her life half-fulfilled, working on the properties of close friends. By the time they begin courting, she’s twenty-seven and quite literally friendless.
Walter and Charlotte fall in love almost in spite of themselves, Scott believes that no woman can usurp Mina’s place in his heart and Charlotte fears that she will never experience real love due to her age and social position. But a three-month courtship takes place anyway, and then the couple goes on to marry on Christmas Eve, 1797. Their thirty-year plus marriage seems to have been very happy, and produces four children.
As always with historical fiction, one is left dependant on the skills of the writer to breathe new life into old voices. Fortunately, this novel manages to come to life, page by page, thanks to Kilpack’s radiant prose. The author invents lively voices for each character in the main drama, and Mina, Charlotte and Walter all come off as flawed but lovable in their own ways – from Mina’s distinctly, teenage point of view to Scott’s impassioned, heedless romanticism to the mature-beyond-her-years but still impassioned Charlotte, not one of them sounds like the other, an achievement for any author, and she even captures all of the social mores of the time in their extravagant ridiculous. The book is beautifully written and extremely engaging, swooningly romantic, and very wise in the way it differentiates between Walter’s love of each woman. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Mina when her parents press upon her the importance of marrying into her class – and sorry for Scott, so besotted and so young himself. You even feel genuine dread for Charlotte as she prepares herself for a loveless marriage, even though we all know how that one turned out.
Kilpack also doesn’t skimp on lovingly detailing Scott’s feelings about his other true love – the written word. His passion seeps into the page, whether Kilpack is recording Scott’s thought process as he writes, or if she’s having him recite aloud to Mina, or Charlotte and Scott are rhapsodizing about Hamlet together – the love of words is there.
The only flaw the book really has is the author’s insistence in writing out Charlotte’s French accent – a lot of ‘de’s instead of ‘the’s. It’s a flaw that’s usually easily overlooked, so don’t let this deter you from picking up the book.
All in all, The Lady of the Lakes is an enchanting romantic drama that fills up its pages with romantic dramatis that would make Edith Wharton proud. It comes highly recommended.