An Independent Heart by Elizabeth Grant

An Independent Heart by Elizabeth Grant begins in at the very end of January 1814 with Captain Justin Sumners arriving in a wintery England after serving five years in Spain during the Peninsular War, including seven recent months spent as a captive. He is the second son of Lord Hawksfield but, with his elder brother’s accidental death, Justin is now heir. He immediately discovers that his father has arranged a marriage for him to a wealthy Scottish heiress. He doesn’t mind the idea of an arranged marriage.
A girl who agreed to an arranged marriage should know what she was about. A companion, a helpmate – the homely word made him smile. (p.14)

But the day following, he meets beautiful and poised Claire Lammond at the Frost Fair held on the frozen Thames when he returns her purse to her after it is snatched by a young pickpocket. Then, finally, introductions are made.
If he had laughed on hearing who she was, that was the sudden lifting of the regret he had felt only minutes earlier, that he should meet a girl like this on the very day he had learned of his father’s plans. (p.29)

Claire is the eldest of a family of four younger sisters and a half-brother, Robert Lyster, whose father-in-law is a country neighbour of Lord Hawksfield. Claire’s family life was unhappy and erratic up until the death of her parents when she and her sisters were taken into the care of their grandmother. The experience of her parents violently unhappy marriage was such that Claire resolved never to love and never to marry. But she has set aside the resolution against marrying to assist her brother in his attempt to gain a seat in Parliament. He needs Lord Hawksfield’s support and the price of that is the marriage of Robert’s now wealthy sister to Lord Hawksfield’s heir. Despite Justin’s courtesy and care for her, Claire still holds to her resolve never to fall in love.

Both Claire and Justin are well-rounded characters—likeable, decent people with depth and intelligence. They have a ready-made family in Claire’s sisters who live with them, this was part of the marriage arrangement, who also are marked, though not to the degree Claire is, by their previous family life. Each of the sisters has a unique personality as well as a part to play in Claire and Justin’s story, as happens in any family. The concerns of the times are present through the novel: the enclosure of common land, elections, thought of the influx of ordinary soldiers when the war finally ends and what that will mean for the future. The progress of Claire and Justin’s relationship is seen through their reactions to the way these matters impinge on their lives and to the vagaries of family as they come to know each other’s mind and personality more fully.

Claire’s emotional reservations are slowly revealed, through her actions and half-thoughts, and sometimes the comments of others, the way matters are often made clear in real life. There is nothing of the horrifyingly modern ‘We have to talk?’ approach. Justin’s decency and humanity is shown in many ways but particularly through his treatment of his batman, Pépé Reyes who has come with him from Spain. Pépé’s presence also provides an opportunity for the reader to see the more usual reactions of the period to foreigners.

Although the novel is set firmly in the Regency period, the bulk of the novel takes place on the Hawksfield country estate, not in London, so there nothing of the ton and rakes and seductions found in many Regency-based novels. The period is captured perfectly with its hierarchy and formality, the mores of the times shown through character interactions and even in their patterns of speech.

The prose is elegant and perfectly displays the delicacy of the interactions between Claire and Justin. Not a word is out of place. Grant’s descriptions of the countryside are absolutely breathtaking.

The rain-saturated meadows glittered with puddles. The furrows in the freshly ploughed fields resembled miniature canals. Claire narrowed her eyes against the dazzle. In the distance, the river made a silver ribbon bordered by the greyish green of willows. The low green hills were dotted with sheep and criss-crossed with blackthorn hedges faintly frosted over with buds. A procession of fairweather clouds marched along the horizon, their smooth bellies tickled by St Edmund’s battlemented tower. So bright, so wide – the rolling landscape under its open horizon gave her a strange sense of safety. (p. 107)

This is a novel to be savoured, not rushed through in a few hours, and to be reread. The year is only half over but I am certain An Independent Heart will be one of my top six reads for 2022.

One thought on “An Independent Heart by Elizabeth Grant

  1. Pingback: My Reading – July 2022 | Catherine Meyrick

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