The Tutor’s Daughter is largely inspired by Jane Austen. Her actual life, that is, as opposed to her works, although I am sure that they had some influence as well. It is an interesting look at one possible turn Jane’s life could have taken if she had been a teacher rather than a writer.
Miss Emma Smallwood has lived her life surrounded by men -- young men, sent to her father’s small school to prepare them for their time at university. Her mother and aunt have been her only female companions. When her mother dies, Emma’s father begins to fade away. Her aunt tries to help him, as does Emma, but both of them find themselves at a loss as to how to get him interested in life once more. Emma watches with growing dismay as his pupils graduate with no effort made to procure replacements. In desperation she takes the task upon herself and writes to a family whose oldest sons they had educated. She knows that there are now younger sons in the family and she hopes to encourage them to send those boys to their school.
The reply surprises Emma. The Weston family would be happy to have their sons educated by Mr. Smallwood but rather than sending them to his academy they would like to invite him to be the boys’ private tutor at their estate in Cornwall. He is invited to bring his family with him. For her part Emma does not wish to go. She was very fond of the young Phillip Weston but his older brother Henry had been her greatest tormentor during her youth. She has no desire to share a home with him once more and since he is the heir to the estate, she has no doubt he will be in residence. However, her father sees this as the perfect way to throw off his depression. In a new home, away from the place where his wife spent her last days in great suffering, he will be able to heal. The two head for the coast with trepidation on Emma’s part and hope on her father’s part.
Emma’s concerns are justified by their “welcome.” The family coach fails to meet them at the Inn and they are forced to find their own conveyance to Ebbington Manor. Once there they find that the Baronet had forgotten to tell his family of their coming and the household was completely unprepared for them. To add to the problem, a family emergency had come up which has everyone in an uproar. To increase the stress factor, the precise nature of the emergency is a clearly something the family desires to keep a secret.
For Emma, the only good point in all of this is that Henry is away dealing with some piece of the emergency. She and her father quietly settle in to the household, with Emma growing increasingly concerned about the secrecy surrounding literally everything. The Weston’s have a ward named Lizzie, whose backstory is completely off limits. Mysterious piano playing goes on at night, although no one in the household displays the level of talent used when playing during the daylight hours. The two boys were kicked out of their local school for fighting but again, mystery surrounds even that simple fact. Even as her father heals, Emma grows increasingly alarmed. She finds that asking questions regarding certain local events inspires a great deal of concern and anger. Henry’s return adds to her agitation since he clearly does not wish them to be there. And someone is most definitely entering her room at night, leaving mysterious gifts and taking prize possessions.
Emma’s initial suspicions light upon Henry as the perpetrator. He had been a great prankster during his school days and she wouldn’t put it past him to have begun tormenting her once more. As she spends time with him she begins to seriously doubt that judgment and starts to radically rethink her opinion of the man. He is so mature and responsible now, so much what she had wished he would be. Does he see her in a new light as well? Or is she so far beneath him in station that he doesn’t really see her at all?
This novel has a nice gothic feel to its beginning. We have Emma and her father arriving into a house of secrets. Because of the melancholia her father feels, he is of no real help to Emma and it is up to her to solve the puzzles that make up the Weston family. At the same time, we see her becoming the recipient of sinister if innocent acts. Are the actions a result of her curiosity? Or are they the cause of it? The author uses the historical period to great advantage as Emma begins to unravel the mystery. Decisions are explained according to the customs and mores of the time but Emma and Henry are also used to present the more modern view. I really liked this juxtaposition of the two ways of looking at the issue.
I also enjoyed the romance. It was very slow, which was completely fitting with where Emma and Henry begin. I liked how history changed when viewed through the eyes of Henry, who had admired a young girl who clearly had not admired him. Since this was classic school room behavior most people will have guessed that from the start but it was still fun to have him explain it. Because of their history, the two became friendly before they become more to each other. They are a perfect fit, though. Both are scholarly, responsible, caring people. I thought the novel also captured the reality of a great house very well. The family had struggles with even the idea of economizing but was at the same time very aware that money and large sums of it were needed to maintain the household. Their varying solutions to that problem showcased the morality of the day. Also covered were the social strata of the era. Emma is made very aware of her position by the Lady of the house, who wishes her sons to marry for money. Lizzie is ultimately made to feel her place as well. The fact that the social structure was not just discussed but an issue made me very happy since too often the realities are waved on the way to an HEA in romance. What really made this work was the fact that we got to see how very independent of all that Henry was and why he was so independent of it all. Therefore, when he made a decision to buck societal strictures and choose “beneath” him, it made sense.
This is an inspirational so God and faith are featured throughout the book. On a scale of one to ten I would probably put it at a three– God is mentioned but in no way is the focus of the book a lecture on faith. Funnily enough, it is Henry who takes the lead in this area. He has begun attending Wesleyan services, which have brought him nearer to God than his Anglican attendance ever did. Emma is surprised by this since the young man she knew slept through church. For her part, she has been angry at God since her mother died but Henry’s quiet assurance in his faith slowly draws her back in. The author handles this skillfully, having it all take place in what probably amounts to less than three or four pages of text.
This is a delightful, well written Regency read with a touch of gothic overtones. If you are a fan of inspirational reads I can heartily recommend this read.
-- Maggie Boyd
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