The contents reflect the packaging. Nothing flashy or melodramatic, just solid, engrossing storytelling that kept me cheerfully entertained for not merely one but several afternoons. It's set confidently in the Regency era and in many ways reads like a novel written at that time.
A novel of manners both good and ill, The Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof opens by plunging us into an atmosphere of mourning. The year is 1813, and the title character, the heir to Ridley in Wiltshire, has been killed by musket fire during the Napoleonic Wars. He leaves an orphaned nine-year-old daughter, distraught parents, and a younger brother who must, reluctantly, assume his place in the family.
Lyndon's mother, Lady Charles Wilder, a self-centered woman concerned about appearances, is particularly distressed because her husband had bought Lyndon a commission in a regiment inappropriate to his status, and this may have put him in harm's way. To raise the funds, her husband had had to cut down a large grove of oak trees on their property, and now their 5000-acre estate is starting to look shabby.
Lord Charles, a kindly elderly man who can't stand up to his wife, looks to his younger son, Thomas, a major in the Royal Horse Artillery, to solve their problems... if he can convince him to leave the military. Lady Charles, however, has never been close to Thomas. He serves as a sad reminder of the older son she adored and lost, and she's consoled only by the thought of Lyndon's heroic death.
The first 80 pages pass fairly calmly as we get to know the characters’ personalities and habits through their interactions. The plot takes a sharp step forward when Major Wilder arrives home at Ridley with unwelcome news, at least for his mother. Thomas had been named the primary beneficiary in his brother's will, and he also receives guardianship of his niece, Lottie. His mother is starved for information about Lyndon's last moments, but he can't give her what she needs.
What's more, Lyndon wasn’t a paragon of virtue... not by a long shot. Whatever his feelings toward his brother, Major Wilder is a decent, responsible man. He knows he must prevent any dangerous revelations about Lyndon from coming out.
|Here it stands next to a normal-sized |
hardcover, for perspective.
The plot revolves around the relationships between members of the immediate family, other Wilder siblings living elsewhere, Lottie's youthful governess Anna Arbuthnot, and their neighbors the Kingstons – and how they adjust to life (if they do) in Lyndon's absence.
Miss Arbuthnot, a clergyman’s daughter considered unattractive with her red hair and freckles, grows to love her young charge.
During their mourning-related seclusion, she is drawn closely into the family drama, and Thomas appreciates the difficult position she’s in. The governess is “such a betwixt and between thing,” as Miss Arbuthnot writes to her father. It’s through her outsider’s viewpoint that we observe much of the goings-on.
This is a lively and comfortable read in which everyone acts according to character, except, well, when they don't – and that’s what keeps things interesting. Not everything is prim and proper, and Dineley adds periodic dashes of wit to the telling. When necessary, the tone is wise and gently biting (“Lady Charles was not pleased, but then she was not often pleased”) and sometimes hilariously funny. I admire how the author can size people up with one pointed description. "Mrs Kingston was certainly pretty, like a dove, all soft plumage and pouting bosom," she writes of the widow who had hoped to marry Lyndon and now sets her cap at Thomas. It's clear Mrs Kingston doesn't have a chance.
Intelligent, curious Lottie's actions provide much humor; she has a way of getting what she wants and often forgets that personal remarks about people are considered rude. She and her good friend Horatio Kingston can get away with saying aloud what many adults around them can't.
Although the story rambles somewhat, it does so in a diverting way. The length (nearly 600 pages!) immersed me in the detail-rich environment and the daily lives of these memorable people. At the same time, the author illustrates the social inequities at the time, young people’s education, estate management in the Regency-era English countryside, the complexities of inheritance, and the destructive nature of excessive grief.
The jacket blurb calls the book “hauntingly written,” which may not be the best description. The mystery aspect – the secret about Lyndon Wilder – fades in and out of the plot until it comes back into focus at the very last, but readers may be so absorbed in the story that they don’t notice. The world feels so real and convincing that I have no doubt that the characters continued to exist after their story ended. If there’s a sequel, which I hope there is, I look forward to joining them again.
The Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof was published by Corsair, an imprint of the UK publisher Constable & Robinson, on March 7th, 2013, at £12.99 (hb, 584pp).