Bethany House, January 2013.
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)
Emma Smallwood has grown up in her father’s academy for boys, and has witnessed the school’s gradual descent into failure following her mother’s death. Determined to help her father get back on his feet, Emma takes matters into her own hands and writes to the parents of one of her favourite former pupils, hoping that they’ll offer to send their two youngest sons to her father’s school. She’s surprised when the recipient of the letter, Sir Giles Weston, responds with an offer for her and her father to move to Ebbington Manor in Cornwall to tutor his youngest sons. Emma doesn’t expect her father to accept the offer, but he decides that a change of scenery might be good for them.
Emma is secretly hoping for the chance to meet Philip Weston again, having long held on to fond memories of their time together at the academy. She’s not so keen to run into his older brother, Henry, given the pranks he used to play on her as a child. But Henry has matured far beyond Emma’s wildest dreams, and she’s surprised to find herself far more interested in the older Weston brother, especially given her prior feelings towards Philip.
Life at Ebbington Manor definitely isn’t as straight-forward as Emma anticipated. The younger Weston brothers talk of a ghost, and Emma would normally dismiss such talk, if it weren’t for the mysterious noises she hears at night and the distinct feeling that someone visits her room while she’s sleeping. The presence of Lady Weston’s ward, Lizzie, is unexplained and the girl appears to be hiding something. Even more mysterious are Henry’s attempts to build a warning tower to bring aid to the ships that are often wrecked during storms along the Cornwall coast, and the reaction this brings from local wreckers, some of whom seem too involved in the Weston family’s affairs.
Can all of these circumstances create a suitable environment for Emma and her father to recover from her mother’s death, and possibly form new relationships? Or is their visit to Cornwall far less simple than they anticipated?
Not being quite as obsessed with Jane Austen as some women, I never felt the desire to pick up a Regency romance until my book group chose to read Julie Klassen’s The Maid of Fairbourne Hall back in March. After devouring the novel in a matter of days, I immediately realised my mistake in avoiding her novels for so long, and have been eagerly awaiting the publication of The Tutor’s Daughter ever since. Although I didn’t love this novel quite as much as Julie’s previous book, I still immensely enjoyed it, and may have stayed up long past midnight to finish reading it.
What I appreciated most about The Tutor’s Daughter was Julie’s ability to make all of the characters come alive, regardless of how small a part they played in the novel. I noticed this when I read The Maid of Fairbourne Hall, and was pleased to discover that she continued her manner of developing characters in the lives of the Weston family and their friends. Although a few characters may initially seem a little villainous, their motivations were revealed as the novel developed. I particularly appreciated the way that Henry’s feelings about his stepmother were put across and this made me sympathise with him all the more. Even the younger Weston brothers are given distinct personalities, which makes the revelation towards the end of the novel all the more surprising.
I don’t want to go too far into the details of the plot, but I will say that the plot twists weren’t easily anticipated. Sometimes the suspense in a romance novel isn’t as dramatic as it could be, because you know the hero and heroine are going to get out of their perilous situation and be married by the end of the novel, so you don’t have to worry too much about them. This wasn’t so much the case with The Tutor’s Daughter, and even though I knew that the hero and heroine would somehow find a way to be together, there were still several points in the novel where my heart was pounding and I was worried that they wouldn’t live to see the next morning. It makes me sound rather silly, as if I’d forgotten how romance novels work, but I’ll defer responsibility to Julie’s wonderful writing.
I’d also like to credit Julie for making Cornwall come alive and inspiring me to put it on my “Must Visit” list. Since I’m one of the few readers of this novel who actually lives within driving distance of Cornwall, I probably should visit it someday. Interesting unintentionally, this is the second novel I’ve read in the last few weeks that was set in Cornwall, and both books made the location seem far more fascinating than any school history lesson or friend’s holiday stories have in the past. As always, Julie includes her snippets from history books or local newspapers at the start of the chapter, detailing Cornwall’s history and facts about shipwrecks and tutoring in the period. These details are also scattered throughout the novel as Emma investigates Cornwall’s history. The history might not be as detailed as other historical novels, but there’s enough to get a feel of being in the fictional Ebbington Manor in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century.
The one factor that holds me back from giving this novel a higher rating is actually Emma herself. As fascinating at the details about Cornwall and shipwrecks were, along with the development of the minor characters in the novel and their motivations, I didn’t actually feel like I got to know Emma all that well. She wasn’t a terribly distinct character, compared to some romantic heroines, so it was very easy to imagine yourself in her place and feel as if you were visiting Ebbington Manor and trying to figure out the family’s secrets. I think this is good, to a certain extent. But it wasn’t until close to the end of the novel when Emma began to make some changes in her life that I realised that this was the first real sign of character development that I’d witnessed. Emma does have some flaws, but I felt like they were abandoned a little in the development of the main plot. It was very easy to place myself in Emma’s shoes and see Ebbington Manor through her eyes, but I didn’t relate to many of her conflicts or flaws. At times, I actually felt like it was easier to relate to and sympathise with Henry, given his many relational and moral conflicts.
Likewise, as well as I felt that Emma’s spiritual conflict was handled, it wasn’t the most inspiring conflict. I seem to have come across a spate of novels recently where the main character’s spiritual journey simply focuses on them reclaiming their lost faith. I did feel that Emma’s journey was the most realistic presentation out of those I’ve come across lately, so I’ll credit Julie with that, but I do wish that authors would be a little bit more creative when it comes to the spiritual side of their novels.
Although I wasn’t quite as enthralled with The Tutor’s Daughter as I was with The Maid of Fairbourne Hall, I will freely admit that my issues with the novel are fairly minor. Julie’s long-standing fans are sure to be pleased with this latest offering, and any Christian historical romance fans who have not yet picked up a Julie Klassen novel are definitely missing out.
Review title provided by Bethany House