The Salt Hendon Collection
Narrated by Alex Wyndham
I first listened to Lucinda Brant’s Salt Bride and Salt Redux a few years back, when they were most ably narrated by Marian Hussey. This new edition of both books (plus the novella, Salt Angel, originally published in A Timeless Romance Anthology: Silver Bells Collection) includes the original version of Salt Bride, with the prologue reinstated (it was removed from subsequent editions of the book as it provoked some controversy) and the audios are narrated by the supremely talented Alex Wyndham, whose performances of Ms. Brant’s other novels have made quite the impression on fans of romance audiobooks.
A marriage made because of the conditions of a will and a deathbed promise is probably not the most auspicious beginning to a relationship. But those are the conditions under which Miss Jane Despard is forced to accept the hand of Magnus Sinclair, the Earl of Salt Hendon (known as Salt). In order for her beloved step-brother to receive the bulk of his inheritance, Jane must marry before a certain date, and in order to fulfil a promise made to a dying man, Salt is obliged to offer for the woman who heartlessly jilted him four years earlier. He and Jane met during her début season and fell deeply in love, eagerly anticipating their vows on the night he proposed to her. Salt was called away before they could make the engagement official but failed to return – even when Jane sent him a note telling him she was pregnant – and later broke their engagement by letter. So Jane is bewildered when, on the first occasion they have seen each other in four years, Salt seems to feel that he is the injured party and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that his offer is made only because he is honour bound to make it and that once they are married, he intends to send her to live in the country while he continues with his life in London. But Jane is no simpering miss and makes Salt aware that she is just as unhappy about the situation as he is.
As the couple settle into their married life and each realises that they never really fell out of love, there is sufficient mistrust and uncertainty between them for neither to want to make the first move and admit it. Jane becomes more and more convinced that Salt never knew of her pregnancy – but doesn’t know why her letter never reached him, and is still confused as to why he ended their betrothal so abruptly. And Salt comes to realise that Jane’s life during their separation was not at all what he had supposed, and that his assumptions about her have been based on falsehoods.
The arranged marriage is a favourite trope of mine, and this one is bound up in all sorts of deliberately engineered misunderstandings and behind-the-scenes machinations by the villain of the piece, Lady Diana St. John, Salt’s cousin and the widow of his best friend. She is obsessed by Salt to the point of insanity – but knowing that he will never marry her, she nonetheless aims to keep him for herself by acting as his hostess and remaining constantly at his side through the glittering political career for which she believes he is destined.
Diana is a well-realised character, even though she’s dangerously close to being over-the-top. She’s so devious and clever that there are times it seems as though she might actually get away with her nefarious schemes; and the depths to which she will go in order to obtain what she wants are truly horrifying when they are finally revealed.
One word of warning – Salt Bride opens with the rather traumatic scene of a young woman (Jane) in the midst of a deliberately induced miscarriage, which, while not graphic, may nonetheless prove upsetting. This prologue was removed from the second edition of the book (and the Marian Hussey version of the audio) – and the information is drip-fed through the rest of the story (the miscarriage scene is still present in a slightly different form). Personally, I prefer that version of the story, but the placement of that scene makes no difference to the way the story plays out.
Salt Redux picks up the story of the Salt Hendons some four years after the ending of Salt Bride. Salt, Jane and their young family are happily living in the country away from the goldfish bowl of London, but decide that it is time for them to return and for Salt to resume his political career. We learn that in the intervening years, Sir Anthony Templestowe, Salt’s closest friend and relative (and a prominent secondary character in the previous book) was sent to St. Petersburg on a diplomatic posting following a public melt-down and descent into alcoholism; Salt’s sister, Caroline – with whom Anthony has been in love for years – married another man, and the evil Diana was exiled to a remote corner of Wales where she lives on one of Salt’s estates, surrounded by servants who are actually her jailers.
But four years in isolation has not quashed Diana’s ambitions one jot, and her obsession with Salt and hatred for Jane are stronger than ever. After lots of careful planning and waiting, she poisons her guard, makes her escape and heads straight for London where she begins to re-insert herself into a society that was never made aware of the extent of her misdeeds, believing instead that she had gone abroad in the wake of her heartbreak over Salt’s marriage. This decision, made in order to spare the families the massive scandal that would have ensued on revelation of the truth, naturally comes back to bite everyone in the backside, as it enables Diana to hide in plain sight and to begin her campaign to insert herself back into Salt’s life.
News of her escape brings a much healthier, dried-out Anthony back to London where he is shocked and annoyed to find Diana in residence at his town house. Knowing that her presence is almost certain to mean danger for the Salt Hendons, Anthony decides the best policy is to play along with his sister in order to discover her intentions and then make sure they are thwarted. Running parallel with the continuation of this storyline is that of Anthony’s romance with Caroline, who is now a widow. There is a little hiccup along the way, with Caroline believing herself unworthy of so good a man, but fortunately, this isn’t dragged out and Caroline very sensibly determines to make a clean breast of it to the man she loves before accepting his proposal. Their romance is fairly low key, however, as the driving force of the novel is the Diana plotline, which contains some truly nail-biting moments. With that said, however, there are times in the first part of the book when the imparting of information is deliberately delayed; and while I normally enjoy Ms. Brant’s detailed descriptions of the clothes, food, locations and customs of the period, I can’t deny that they sometimes hinder the progression of the plot. But that isn’t always the case, and her descriptions of the customs of the Russian court are vivid and interesting. She also handles the key moment of Anthony’s confession to Caroline very well indeed.
The set is finished off by the novella Salt Angel, which sees Kitty Aldershot, a secondary character from Salt Redux, get her happy ending with Jane’s brother, Tom, with a little help along the way from a delightfully charming, elderly Russian prince.
Given the highly accomplished performances Alex Wyndham has already delivered in a number of Ms. Brandt’s other books, it’s no wonder that she took the rather unusual step of having him re-record these stories. His delivery and pacing are spot on, and he continues to display exceptional vocal acting skills when it comes to bringing out the emotional nuances behind the author’s words. His character differentiation is absolutely superb; I didn’t count the number of characters who appear in both Salt Bride and Salt Redux, but the cast is quite large and every single member, regardless of gender, age or station, is easily distinguishable from the others. His female voices are among the best I’ve ever heard from any male narrator, so the high-born ladies – Jane, Diana and Caroline – all sound as ladies of quality should. It’s easy to tell them apart, however, and Diana’s sneering hauteur is perfectly judged. The two heroes – Salt and Anthony – are flawlessly portrayed. Salt’s deep, resonant tones expertly conjure up the portrait of a man of power and influence who exudes confidence and latent sensuality, while Anthony’s velvety baritone works wonderfully to convey the character’s deep sense of honour and compassion. Anyone who has listened to Mr. Wyndham before will know that he is an outstanding narrator, and anyone who hasn’t – well, you’re missing out and really should give him a try.
Coming in at just under twenty-four hours, listening to the set all in one go is a big commitment, but it’s obviously possible to divide it up into its constituent parts and tackle one story at a time. Salt Bride is probably the stronger of the two books, and while Salt Redux could just about be listened to on its own, I wouldn’t advise it, as so many of the characters and plotlines are introduced in the first book, and this is very much a continuation of that story.
But with Alex Wyndham at the helm, listening for long stretches is no hardship!
Breakdown of Grade: Narration: A+ Content: Salt Bride: B+/Salt Redux: B
Running Time: 23 hours and 50 minutes
Note: The Salt Hendon Collection, narrated by Alex Wyndham is available ONLY as a boxed set of the two novels and the novella. Salt Bride and Salt Redux continue to be available individually, narrated by Marian Hussey.