Desert Isle Keeper
An Unconventional Heiress
Circa 1810, Sydney society is in transition. The new governor Lachlan Macquarie is raising the status of freed convicts (‘emancipists’), much to the wrath of exclusives who arrived from the United Kingdom freely and, often, temporarily. Sarah Langley, wealthy gentlewoman newly arrived in the city is clearly an exclusive. So how could she possibly be interested in an ex-con emancipist like Dr. Alan Kerr? An Australia-set historical that truly transports (if you’ll pardon the convict-linked expression!) the reader to the social and historical setting? Yes, please!
It’s such a pleasure to watch Sarah transform from haughty gentlewoman to practical, open-minded Australian. She struggles to learn to sew and do some cooking, skills she never had to master as an English lady. She learns to be thoughtful in her speech patterns, realizing that she can get further with careful statements than her old autocratic declarations. A turning point is when her servant goes into labor – something Sarah realizes she would not even have known about in England – and only Sarah is there to help. Alan has less growing to do, but he’s a good, hard-working man, with historically accurate pride.
The tone of this story is much more old-fashioned than I would have expected given its 2003 release date, reading almost like an Australian Georgette Heyer. The dialogue is enjoyably historical-formal. After Sarah tells Alan she does not expect to see him again (a jab at his low social class and the different circles she expects to move in), Alan retorts:
“Unless your health is perfect, or you are willing to settle for some half-trained leech from The Rocks, then you and your brother are likely to encounter me on a number of occasions. I bid you good day and good health – you are likely to need both.”
The downside of this voice is that by the end, there’s a lot of “clasping” and “my darlings”, which feel a bit silly. I didn’t love the ending action sequence, which relied on a huge coincidence, but it is completely consistent with this sort of older style (think The Scarlet Pimpernel, etc).
Now let’s talk setting. For me, setting is as much about the ‘feel’ and character of the place as it is historical details, and this book shines in both. An Unconventional Heiress reads like a truly Australian story, rather than a UK Regency transplanted to Australia, and the small-town, edge-of-the-world vibe of Sydney comes through. Everyone knows everyone’s business within days, if not hours. Sarah’s dresses, nearly a year out of date, are the closest thing anyone has seen to the latest London fashions. We hear about the heat, the “topsy-turvy” seasons, the wildness of the landscape, the brickyard dust kicked up by the Macquarie building boom, the strangeness of seeing a wallaby in your back garden, the lack of fine food.
This story centers well-researched conflict within the white Australian community. Aborigines are not erased, but they are peripheral. Governor Macquarie is a real historical figure, long considered the father of Australia for his long-sighted realization that the emancipists who stayed would be the true shapers of the country. (Macquarie is rightfully controversial today for having ordered massacres of Aborigines, but it’s hard to criticize this book too much for omitting that since they are still, in book terms, six years in the future). Alan is the embodiment of Macquarie’s vision, and it’s touching when Sarah notes that Alan came by force, and she is a guest, but her children will belong to Australia. But alongside those two living Macquarie’s dream, we see people opposed to it, and we also see some of the convicts, especially the political convict Irish, for whom Macquarie’s proposed reforms don’t go far enough.
I love category romances, and it’s always delightful to unbury a Harlequin treasure. If you are looking for a richly-developed unusual setting and a story with old-fashioned (rather than old-skool) vibes, pick up An Unconventional Heiress.