A Reluctant Bride
Les Miserables meets the high seas in Jody Hedlund’s A Reluctant Bride, the story of a woman from the slums who finds her worth on the bounding main.
Mercy Wilkins lives in one of London’s poorest slums. Barely able to keep shoes on her feet, she nonetheless sacrifices all she can to help the neighborhood’s children and her own family survive. Mercy’s sister, Patience, is slaving away in a workhouse and Mercy has been searching hard for a job that won’t force her to compromise her virtue while allowing her to support their numerous younger siblings and their mother, Twiggy. Determined to save her ten-year-old brother from work on the docks when Twiggy loses her job, Mercy goes to the Columbia Mission Society at Patience’s suggestion. There, healthy women with good reputations are being recommended for a ship that will deliver them to Vancouver and British Columbia, where there are jobs aplenty.
Mercy is nearly turned away, but a miraculous opening secures her a position not on a boat for domestics, but a bride ship named the Tynemouth that will provide women to lonely men in the mountains of Canada. If Mercy behaves well, the seriously sick Patience will be promoted for a journey to Canada on the next ship out.
During the voyage, Mercy’s amateur nursing talents soon become a help to Lord (and Doctor) Joseph Colville, a man she met when they tried to help one of her young neighbors while he served as a substitute physician at the local dispensary. Mercy knows keeping her reputation virtuous is the only way she can secure a husband in Canada, but she cannot stop herself from doing what’s right and ministering to the women and men aboard at Joseph’s side, which sometimes requires her to be improperly alone with him. As the journey goes more dangerous and they rely upon one another to care for the sailors and wannabe brides on the ship, Joseph draws closer to Mercy. But she could never become Lady Colville and hobnob among the social upper strata, could she?
A Reluctant Bride is part story of romantic yearning, part philosophical story of religious faith complicated by the imperfections of human existence, and part story of blood-and-guts medical drama. You’re not going to make it through this book if you have a weak stomach; there’s a lot of puking, a lot of boils, and a lot of burning, scarlet-cheeked fevers.
This vividness goes a long way to making the time period spring to life. So does A Reluctant Bride’s chronicle of life aboard ship. Kudos to Hedlund for fantastic research; you can feel the pitch and roll of the deck under your feet and smell the sea air as you read.
The morality quagmire that faces both Joseph and Mercy is a simple one – society versus the will of God. The book provides an excellent examination of how the contemporary interpretation of propriety could get between proper medical care and a woman in the 1800s – and between her hope of a woman’s improvement in life and the hell of being labeled a slattern. Joseph only wants the best for Mercy, and Mercy only wants to do the proper thing; they’re two good people who ache to kiss and touch one another but cannot do it for fear of ruining Mercy’s life, and, in Joseph’s case, promising much more than he can offer.
Both of them are sympathetic, if a bit too self-sacrificing – there is a major caveat in that they can be doormat-ish almost to a fault when it comes to other people; some may find them too wimpy, but their trip toward self-actualization worked very well for me. They manage to shake out of their self-denying torpor eventually, but for a while you may want to shake them.
I only have one other problem with A Reluctant Bride; I didn’t find the conclusion to Patience’s story satisfying at all – no matter how realistic it was – and I hope it will be revisited in the next volume in a happier manner.
Otherwise, this is a vivid, well-researched story of two people who, with faith on their side, come to respect and care about one another while battling back the social mores and class strictures trying to pull them apart. It’s a good story about good people, rocky parts and all.