A note to the reader: these novels are sadly out of print, but are available for cheap on Kindle. I have acquired some of them from used book sellers, but they are hard to find.
Previously I compared the Warstowe Saga to Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. Now, Meriol Trevor doesn’t come across as the meticulous researcher that Heyer is. She’s much less concerned with details of slang, clothing, carriages, snuff boxes and so forth– so if that’s the sort of thing you like about Heyer, then there’s not so much of that historical color. Rather, Trevor’s passion is character, and she situates her romantic leads in big families and complex webs of relationships. Often in her novels there are children who play a significant role in the story who then, in subsequent books, grow up to be romantic heroes and heroines themselves. In her juvenile novels like Sun Slower Sun Faster and the Letzenstein Chronicles series, the children are the protagonists while adult romances are a background subplot. In her romance novels, the dynamic flips and the adult romances are the primary plot, while the children’s adventures are the subplots. In addition to character, Trevor is very interested in the story’s setting; and place– whether it’s Cornwall, France, Luxembourg, or Italy– plays an important role in the books. It is clear that Trevor is drawing from life, writing about places she loves.
To be honest, I’m still not sure why it’s called The Warstowe Saga. While the Warstowe Family are there in all the books, and do play a significant role, to me they don’t seem to be the prime movers in the series or even the primary thread connecting the books. I’ve wondered if maybe there wasn’t originally a book prior to The Fortunate Marriage that got the ball rolling and had more about the origins of the Warstowes. The series almost feels like it starts in medias res, with a serious backstory in the previous generation that we never get to see. Since I jumped into the series in the third book, it felt like there was backstory because there were earlier volumes (it stood on its own quite well, though). But when I got around to the first book… it had the same sort of vibe.
1. The first novel, The Fortunate Marriage (only $3.99 on Kindle!), is a fairly typical Regency romance. The protagonist is young orphaned Louisa who, after her mother’s death, goes to stay with her sophisticated cousin Caroline Dynham, the Caynnes heiress, whom she always idolized. Caroline is dashing and romantic and Louie is fascinated by her. But she’s also volatile and headstrong and rash. Caroline says that her husband Rowland Dynham is is cruel and controlling and only married Caroline for her money. But… is Caroline a trustworthy narrator?
As time goes on, Louie finds that Caroline’s perfect marriage… isn’t so perfect. Poor Louie is caught between the cousin she loves and her cousin’s husband, Rowland, who is perhaps a black villain (according to Caroline’s version of events) or perhaps a very misunderstood man (Louie quickly believes this to be the case).
This wasn’t my favorite volume of the Warstowe Saga, maybe because I read it last of all (I originally didn’t realize it was on Kindle and was collecting the physical books from used booksellers and reading them in the order in which I acquired them) but it does set the scene for the subsequent books, whose familial relationships are perhaps a little more comprehensible when you’ve read the whole series.
The Warstowe saga as a whole has a current– I almost said undercurrent, but sometimes it’s more overt– of class tensions between the social-climbing and financial interests of the banking Warstowe family, and the landed minor gentry families they marry into. These tensions also arise in Trevor’s juvenile series, the Letzenstein Chronicles. The Warstowes are very much in the background in The Fortunate Marriage, but they do seem to often be pulling strings, trying to control things.
2. The Civil Prisoners might be my favorite of the series. Caught in France after the truce with Napoleon falls apart, a group of Englishmen and women are prisoners in Verdun. Romance and drama during the time of the Napoleonic War with a cast of characters that overlaps with the other novels in the series, but not entirely. The mix of characters here reminds me a bit of Trevor’s Luxembourg series and of her series for teens: the Letzenstein Chronicles with characters who are part English and part-Italian or part-Luxembourgish. There is a dramatic escape attempt and a high drama carriage chase through the French countryside. The Warstowes play a much bigger part as the proper middle class British relatives who generally disapprove of the morals of the aristocracy and of the more lax continental ways, but who are also social climbers.
This is also a classic plot line of the former acquaintances who are thrown together after years apart and fall in love. Emily, Lady Royden married young, her husband is a rake and now a syphilitic drunk and they are now estranged falls. She meets the unmarried man with a past, Cary Vyner, who has a child from a previous affair and who had refused to marry her when they were both young because at that time he was in love with someone else. Trevor handles the impediments in a way that takes them seriously as moral problems, even if the characters deal with them imperfectly. I relate more to Emily than to any of the other heroines– she’s older, still a lot younger than I am, though– and a mother and has some experience of the world.
There’s also a secondary romance plot with Cary’s cousin, Jocelyn, the brother of Rowland Dynham from The Fortunate Marriage. The social-climbing Warstowe family are most in evidence in this novel and are very much a whole tangle of subplots of their own.
I really liked the setting of this one, the high drama of life in the constrained setting of the British kept prisoner in the fort-town of Verdun. Cary is one of my favorite Trevor types: the artistic vagabond who has one foot in England and one on the continent, rather like Rafael in the Letzenstein Chronicles.
3. The Wanton Fires returns to England, mostly Cornwall, but partly London. And the romantic love interest is a Catholic, his faith disapproved of by his own family and that of his fiance, though her family are also impressed by his title. I read this one first, and then found the other volumes in the series, reading them out of order, only realizing several chapters in that The Wanton Fires is the third book in a four book series. Oh, said I, that explains why there are so very many characters from several inter-related families with very complicated backstories such that I wanted very much to have family trees to keep them all straight. Then I read the first two books and realized that the complicated backstory . . . is sort of there from the beginning.
However, when I came back to Wanton Fires on a re-read I was really pleased to notice that how many of the characters were people I’d encountered in The Fortunate Marriage and the Civil Prisoners. Many of them were children in those volumes and have grown up. And you get to see how the marriages in those romances have developed into a happy family life with children.
The novel is set primarily in Cornwall, though the characters also travel to London. The protagonist is Georgie, short for Georgiana (and maybe a nod to Georgette Heyer?), an orphaned young lady who has come to live with her recently married aunt after the death of her grandfather, who was her previous guardian. Although Georgiana is solidly middle class— her grandfather was a bookseller— a young nobleman falls in love with her and she goes to stay with him at his grand house to meet his extended web of relations. Some of them are hostile to her, some approve. Oh and what makes this definitely a Meriol Trevor book is that the young nobleman, Miles, is a Catholic convert, much to everyone’s dismay. (Miles is one of the children in The Fortunate Marriage and The Civil Prisoners, the son of Caroline and Rowland Dynham; here he is all grown up.) However,Miles’ Catholicism doesn’t seem to be a huge impediment to Georgie, who agrees to raise their children Catholic. The story is complicated when Georgie, who cares for and admires Miles but does not love him, falls in love with his cousin.
On the whole an agreeable read, quite comparable to a Georgette Heyer novel, though perhaps with rather less flashing wit. Still, Trevor’s Catholicism might edge her a little ahead of Heyer in my estimation. I look forward to reading the rest of the Warstowe saga.
Oh and I did eventually find the longed-for family tree near the front of the book. Not sure how I missed it before! (And I’m not sure whether it’s in the Kindle edition, I should go look.) And even with a family tree, the relationships are complicated.
4. The Sun with a Face takes place in Italy and is such a fun romp— vies with Civil Prisoners for the honor of being my favorite book in the series. It’s got the British travelers in Italy vibe going for it as well as a much more sympathetic view of Italian culture and especially of the Catholic Church than is standard in British novels. Trevor herself spent time in Italy after the second World War and it was there, I believe, that she decided to become Catholic. Her love for the country and for the people of Italy really shines. And here she really develops more of that sympathy for people of mixed parentage who have a foot in both worlds but belong fully to neither: part Italian, part British. It feels like the British are less accepting of such mixed marriages than the Italians.
The main character is Olivia who is traveling in Italy for the first time, along with her cousin Thea and her orphaned nephew Richie. Olivia’s romantic interest, Lucian Vyner, is the son of Cary Vyner and appeared as a child in The Civil Prisoners. Here he’s grown up and taken his father’s place as the romantic hero. I liked this story quite a bit. A fun romp across Italy with plenty of drama and romance for both Olivia and Thea– and for Lucien’s half-sister as well.
I’m rather sad to get to the end of the series. The novel itself wrapped up nicely as one could wish, but I rather feel that as a series this one began and ended too abruptly. I wanted more books set in this world and this fascinating web of characters.