The Landowner's Secret
Set in New South Wales, Australia in 1885, The Landowner’s Secret provides a slow-moving but captivating tale of a marriage of convenience between classes.
Alice Ryan is awakened in the night by intruders lurking outside her modest cabin. Her parents are dead and her brother, currently absent, has a history of involvement with criminals. Alice is terrified and, realizing she is going to have to save herself, runs into the wilderness. The next morning, local landowner Robert Farrer discovers her, feverish and unconscious, as he is surveying the countryside for signs of the felons. He brings her back to his home and his staff nurse Alice back to health. Robert is a lone bachelor in the house (his sister Elizabeth is away in Sydney) and he is pressured by other landowners to quickly return Alice to her home.
Alice, however, is not fully healed and Robert cannot in good conscience return her to her small cabin in light of the recent criminal activities in the area. Robert’s delay comes at the cost of the respect of one of his key investors and he soon finds himself pressured to wed Alice. Robert needs this investor so he can’t just dismiss the idea, and he slowly starts exploring it. He spends more time with her as she recovers, taking her on drives and walks through the countryside. Robert proposes and Alice considers:
She thought about those meals, and the way a physician came when he was needed…It was such a luxury. She thought about how pretty her new frocks were, those that Elizabeth had talked her into trying. He thought about that funny way her stomach now turned when she was near this man. And she thought about how when she was younger she couldn’t help but steal glimpses of him from afar as he rode along the town road with a strength and grace that snagged her attention and wouldn’t let go. And then she thought about her little house that was running low on firewood. And – God help her – she did say yes.
A marriage of convenience ensues. Alice dreams of more, but she is extremely pragmatic and decides early on that she will not hope for Robert’s love, only his respect and the respect of their neighbors. Alice is a delightful combination of common sense, intelligence, optimism, and naïveté. She understands her small place in the world but is woefully uninformed about the greater one. Robert is drawn to the paradox she presents. He is an honorable, kind man and sees beyond Alice’s meager beginnings to the real woman beneath her circumstances.
The Landowner’s Secret offers the reader the picture of a gentle and slow unfolding of a marriage. In spite of the drama with bushrangers that continues throughout the book, it is a quiet novel with the relationship between Robert and Alice being the main draw. The setting of the novel, in New South Wales, was original for me and I enjoyed Ms. Heaney’s rich descriptions of the enchanting yet harsh countryside where snakes and spiders lurk around every corner. The writing is well done and I especially appreciated the beautiful depiction of a wedding night between a gentle, experienced man and a curious, no-nonsense virgin.
At two hundred pages, The Landowner’s Secret is a short read. The advanced copy I received didn’t have page numbers and my kindle didn’t show how much was left, so I was surprised when the story ended. Not dissatisfied, just surprised and disappointed that we weren’t going to see more of how Robert and Alice’s marriage unfolds. For me, the progression from acquaintances to friends to spouses and hopefully to lovers is always an interesting tale. This story is like a snapshot in time of that progression – just covering a few months of their lives together.
If you are in the mood for a well-written story focused on the development of romance after the ‘I Do’s’, then this is a book you should pick up. This is Ms. Heaney’s first novel and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more from her.