This debut set in 19th century British Columba intrigued me as I’ve spent some time researching the history of the province, my partner having grown up there. The west coast of Canada really did embody the pioneer spirit, in contrast with the more genteel eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec – a cultural divide frequently bemoaned by the artist Emily Carr in the late nineteenth century (her memoir Growing Pains is highly recommended).
The year is 1862. Left an orphan by a father who was not the best at managing the family finances and whose ancestral home has been left to a male cousin, our heroine Charlotte is dependent on her sister Harriet and wealthy brother-in-law Charles, who has stratospheric political ambitions with which nothing – certainly not Charlotte’s choice of husband – must interfere. She is therefore set up with the much-revered chief whip George Chalmers, who is not only dull as dishwater, but goes on to assault her in the summerhouse at a party (which in light of the last week’s news, suggests that little changes). She gets away, clothes torn; but of course nobody believes her side of the story.
Her reputation ruined, Charlotte is convinced by her independent-minded former governess, Wiggles, to take advantage of a new scheme to send women to British Columbia to provide wives for the numerous men who have emigrated there, largely to prospect for gold. A number of books have been written about similar schemes in recent years, such as Anne de Courcy’s excellent The Fishing Fleet, which is thoroughly researched and highlights a fascinating social aspect of the British Raj; and Sîan Rees’s The Floating Brothel, exploring a cruder form of export of women to Australia back in the eighteenth century.
In a last-minute twist (which doesn’t quite ring true), Harriet, unable to produce an heir for the ambitious Charles, is side-lined, and ends up accompanying Charlotte on the voyage. It transpires that Harriet is a laudanum addict, and Charlotte, who has a burgeoning interest in medicine, offers to assist the ship’s doctor on his rounds in return for a limited supply of the drug, with a plan to gradually wean Harriet off it. Combined with rumours from home that Charles is divorcing Harriet, this new endeavour doesn’t help the sisters’ social standing, and they are soon ostracised from the Captain’s circle – though Charlotte continues to spend time with the attractive John, a reverend who is travelling to BC to administer a smallpox vaccine to the indigenous population.
It turns out that John has joined the church by choice – he is in fact a first son in line to inherit which, conveniently, he does during the journey, his father having passed away. He returns home, but not before proposing to Charlotte (she declines) and asking her to carry out his work with the vaccine.
Harriet rather randomly dies en route – a convenient plot device to get her out of the picture, and devoid of its due impact - and Charlotte is robbed on arrival, leaving her with nothing. If that isn’t bad enough, by extraordinary coincidence there are rumours that George Chalmers is on his way out to the province on business. Charlotte gets a job in a tea salon, and then journeys to the interior goldmining town of Barkerville (now preserved in aspic as a museum) with a new friend from her boarding house – but not before purchasing a share in a gold mine.
To conclude: at Barkerville, Charlotte gets a job working at her friend’s father’s restaurant and casino; her share in the gold mine ends up making her rich, and the Reverend John comes all the way from England to find her (after him having suffered a disfiguring injury, acquired heroically; and her having nearly died in a fire, whilst being pursued by an evil private detective). Charlotte buys a ranch, they get married and live on it happily after.
This was a fun romp, but ultimately it smacked of cardboard-cut-out nineteenth century characters having twenty-first century conversations, peppered with North Americanisms such as “figure out”, and was riven with so many clichés and coincidences that it was difficult to get emotionally involved with the characters. I note that the (Canadian) author went with a UK rather than a Canadian agent, but that no UK publisher picked it up, only the Canadian office of Simon & Schuster, which is telling. A shame, as it had the makings of a tale of a young woman going on a much more complex personal journey in tandem with her physical voyage.
In short, I don't agree with the quote on the cover. This is nothing to write home about (even though I’m blogging about it), but to be fair, nothing lost either.