In a notably ambitious British debut, an 18th-century English dairymaid leaves home to enter a world of secrecy, survival and forbidden love.
It’s young Louise Fletcher’s good character and willingness that rescue her from a life of rural drudgery and transform her into a lady’s maid. Employed by Capt. Handley to tend his pretty second daughter, Rebecca, who is about to make a good marriage, Louise moves to the port town of Harwich, where she quickly falls under willful Rebecca’s spell, even risking her life to save her mistress when she falls ill with smallpox. Both women survive, but Rebecca loses her looks and her marriage prospects. Then the two women become lovers. Louise’s story alternates, chapter by chapter, with that of her brother Luke, who was “pressed”—forced—into the English Navy for a brutal life of fighting, flogging, hard work and danger, from which he eventually makes a violent escape. Worsley’s richly atmospheric twin tales capture the flavor of the era, especially the limited options for women, and the passion of illicit love. After an impressive late plot swerve, she reunites her lovers, but their future is bittersweet and pervaded by the call of the sea.
Despite excessive length and some overly ornate period language, this unusual, seductive period tale of love and transformation creates its own memorable world.