The Vanished Days
The Vanished Days is a historical novel following the life of a young Scots woman from 1683 to 1707. A deeply turbulent era politically, this time period saw the ordinary lives of everyday citizens upended as everyone was affected by the machinations of the great men who were desperately vying for power.
Queen Anne’s commissioners have been paying the back wages of those who participated in Scotland’s disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier. A scheme to set up a colony in what is now Panama and establish an overland route to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean trades, the endeavor failed due to stratagems and hostility from the English and Spanish which all but bankrupted Scotland. The belated payments to the families are a panacea which the Crown hopes will encourage peace among the restless and dissatisfied Scottish citizenry.
However, some have seen the commission’s payments as an opportunity, and submitted fraudulent petitions. Lily Graeme née Aitcheson might just be one such person. She has proffered a marriage certificate showing she’d wed Jamie Graeme just before he took part in and died as a result of the expedition, but the marriage was irregular. It did not take place in a church. There were no guests. Both witnesses are dead. Sergeant Adam Williamson is assigned to discover whether the marriage was legitimate or whether Mrs. Graeme is attempting to deceive the commissioners.
When Adam asks Lily to tell him the story of her courtship with Jamie, she goes back to the very start when they were just children, playing in the woods surrounding Inchbrakie, the great estate of the Graeme family. Over the next few weeks, as Adam meets the people who have known Lily through the years, and pieces together her life during the past quarter century, uncovering her trials and triumphs, her friends and enemies – he realizes there are puppetmasters behind the scenes, directing his steps. But why, exactly, would Lily, the poor widow of a simple sailor, be of interest to anyone? That question haunts Adam, who is growing increasingly attached to the beautiful young woman, and he determines to see her come safely out of whatever mess she has inadvertently landed in.
But is it inadvertent? Or has Lily played him false?
Ms. Kearsley’s writing is – as always – beautiful, evocative, and lyrical. Her prose calls forth a perfect sense of a chilling, atmospheric world in which we are never sure of our footing and lends the perfect air of menace to the mystery of this tale. Fans of her novels often rave about the meticulously detailed and immersive history and that, too, is in full evidence here.
However, some things are different this go-round. Ms. Kearsley typically writes dual timeline/time-slip novels which contain a modern era hero/heroine and a historical couple embroiled in some kind of clandestine behavior. That is not the case here. As mentioned earlier, the book is about Lily’s life, and we travel in time only through the thirty years or so of her days on earth. I missed the modern perspective for a couple of reasons. One is that Ms. Kearsley’s contemporary romances tend to follow the traditional tropes of a love story far more than her historical ones do. Her meticulous dedication to historical accuracy means that her historical couples have the more muted, less passionate style of courtship of the eras in which their stories take place. The second reason I felt this story suffered due to not having a present-day storyline is that Ms. Kearsley’s often uses that timeline to inform us about – and explain the significance of – the history via conversations between her contemporary characters. I strongly prefer that to what happened in this tale, where we are immersed in the characters’ impressions of what, for them, are contemporary events. Lily and Adam themselves are not engaged in the silent civil war taking place but they are pawns for those who are, which has them carefully maneuvering through the minefield of Scottish statecraft. A great deal is implied and inferred as a result, rather than spelled out as it is in the author’s other novels. While it was interesting to see the very real effects playing politics had on ordinary folk, I’ll admit I found it quite tedious to wade through a lot of what felt like irrelevant history. Because the story takes place in an age and among a people not my own, I found it far too easy to lose track of the incidental-to-our-tale-but-important- to-the-times players and how and why they affected the story. Additionally, the politics detract from what is most interesting about Lily’s narrative – the vulnerable, often difficult existence of young women of her generation.
And Lily is a character whose life is well worth reading about. She goes through so much in her youth and shines in each new spot in which fate lands her. I especially loved her in her early years – she’s a vibrant, astute child who sees so much so clearly. I adored how clever and hardworking and resilient she is. She grows up to be rather reserved and surprisingly, less wise as an adult – as though all the hard times life put her through made her less rather than more. Part of the reason I felt that way might be due to whom she falls in love with.
Our first hero, Jamie, is easily the most interesting and lovable of Lily’s romantic partners. It’s clear Ms. Kearsley has a strong affection for the Graeme family and Jamie is written with the same warmth, charisma, bravado and chivalry as the other men of that clan. But Lily attracts the attention of others as well – during the middle of the tale there is a foster brother named Matthew who also vies for Lily’s affection, and I liked him far less. He’s restless, combative and insecure due to how he’s grown up and while I found him sympathetic, I never cared for him as a love interest. Finally, there is Sgt. Williamson, a man who proves to be intelligent, honorable, prudent and kind. Their pairing is, of course, in peril because we are unsure whether Lily is telling him the truth and if not, why she would be lying.
The Vanished Days has loose ties to The Winter Sea, but you don’t need to have read that book to enjoy this one. Fans of Ms. Kearsley’s work and those who enjoy long, heroine- centric historical novels will find plenty to love here and I can recommend it to that audience.