Constable and Robinson, 2013. ISBN 978-1-78033-227-7. 584 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.
The Death of Lyndon Wilder is set in 1813-1814 among the country gentry of Wiltshire, England. All the main characters are fictional.
Lyndon Wilder, adored eldest son of Lord and Lady Charles Wilder, has been killed in Spain in the Napoleonic Wars. His death has left his parents, especially his mother, paralysed by grief. The once-prosperous estate is neglected, in debt and in danger of complete ruin. Into this unhappy household comes Anna Arbuthnot, the intelligent and well-educated daughter of a respectable clergyman, to work as governess to Lyndon Wilder’s orphaned daughter Lottie. Anna establishes a bond with her wayward young charge, but Lady Charles views her with snobbish suspicion. Soon after, Lyndon’s younger brother Major Thomas Wilder also arrives, summoned by his ineffectual father to set the estate to rights. Thomas is a successful artillery officer and has seen little of his parents for fifteen years. He is reluctant to exchange his active, satisfying profession for the stifling confines of his parents’ decaying estate, especially as his mother makes no secret of her extreme preference for Lyndon. The company of his little niece Lottie and the new governess Anna provide some compensation for Thomas, as does the challenge of restoring the neglected estate – until a shameful secret from the past threatens to destroy everything…
The title, and to some extent the jacket copy, ‘…Nothing is as it seems…’ initially made me think this was going to be a murder mystery. It isn’t. Instead it’s a sharply observed, well written and subtly characterised family drama, following the fortunes of a group of people as they interact with each other and their circumstances.
The characterisation was the best feature of the book, for me. All the main characters, and many of the minor ones, are fully rounded individuals with a mix of good and not-so-good qualities, their own history, and their own lives to lead, within the constraints imposed on them by social expectation and family duty. Tensions and conflicts are gradually revealed as the narrative progresses. Lord Charles is kind-hearted, but his inability to make decisions looks likely to inflict ruin on himself and all those who depend on him. Lady Charles is devastated by the loss of her favourite child Lyndon, whom she idolised as perfect in every way, and so self-centred that she imposes her misery on everyone around her, compounded by her obsession with maintaining her social standing. Thomas is honest and honourable, both of which conflict with his sense of family duty. And Lyndon, despite being dead, still influences his family’s lives from beyond the grave. It was his death that set events in motion, and his true character is slowly revealed as the narrative develops. Even the minor characters have lives of their own, from the enigmatic intelligence officer Captain Allington, who is on hand when his friend Thomas most needs him, to the housemaid who shrewdly manufactures an opportunity to get herself promoted to lady’s maid.
The plot itself is undramatic, more concerned with the subtly changing relationships between the characters than with action or adventure.
The book is beautifully written in an understated style that suits both the period and the subject matter. It is narrated in third person with the viewpoint switching between the characters, so the reader gets to see people and their actions from their own and others’ point of view. This is one reason why the family drama works so well. It also produces some delightful moments on the small scale, such as the scene where one character is attempting to assess whether his family is at risk of blackmail, while the object of his attention, a charming but air-headed lady, is actually wondering if he admires the colour of her dress.
Beautifully written, subtly characterised family drama set among the English country gentry of the early nineteenth century.