REVIEW: Wintercombe by Pamela Belle
Sometimes we find light in the darkest of places…
Tortured by a cold, Puritan father, Silence has learned to conceal her passionate nature inside a prison like shell of passivity. Her eventual marriage does not offer her the escape that she longs for and she craves some semblance of autonomy. It is only the sweep of history that finally offers Silence the freedom she so desires.
Civil war has raged and her sombre husband has been away for two years. During this time Silence – now Mistress of Wintercombe – has enjoyed a harmonious time with her children. Yet this sheltered world is shattered when enemy Cavaliers invade, causing havoc in the town. Wintercombe, once a tranquil bastion of family virtue, is transformed into an unruly, drunken, and licentious garrison.
As the ugliness of war continues, Silence must learn to shed the submissive nature that life has forced her to assume and draw upon the inner strength that she has always possessed. From this turmoil a still more subtle threat dawns in the handsome shape of Captain Nick Hellier.
As the battle for England is matched by the struggle within her soul, it’s not long before Captain Hellier starts to slowly unlock the chains around Silence’s fragile, Puritan heart…
WARNINGS: The villain of this book is truly despicable. There is a plot point involving Silence’s 15 year old stepdaughter whom the villain threatens with rape. It doesn’t progress beyond the threat but readers with triggers will want to be aware of this.
Dear Ms. Belle,
Yes, this is the book of yours I read a while ago and which sent me on a pre-digital search mission for your (at that point) out of print hardcover books. Since I never did complete that quest, I’m glad to see them being reissued for me and, hopefully soon more, people to discover.
Wintercombe is the first in a series written about a beautiful home in Somerset and its inhabitants during the Civil Wars that ravaged England. It’s a story of a woman taken for granted by all who know her who discovers an inner strength that is honed to fine steel over the course of a year. And how she discovers love with a most unlikely man, the Cavalier captain of the troop of horse which comes to garrison it. I do have to say that even if I love the cover, it’s hardly anything I can see Puritan Silence wearing though to quote Silence’s lady’s maid Mally the woman she do look “tarblish fine.”
Silence St. Barbe is the Puritan wife of a man twice her age who has never loved her. He treats her with condescension, much like a child who needs his firm guidance. Her three stepchildren and three children love her to varying degrees but also take her for granted. She is the calm mistress of a household of servants who still see her as a London outsider and the daughter-in-law of a mean tempered, controlling old biddy who makes the lives of her family a misery – good Lord, Dame Ursula is enough to frighten a whole regimen of demon hellraisers into quivering jelly. Silence is also a woman of hidden passions and needs which no one has ever thought to inquire about much less fulfill.
When a troop of Cavaliers are foisted on the household, Silence discovers she has a resilience she never knew. Determined to protect her home as much as possible from the depredations of the truly vile Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the men, Silence walks a daily tightrope. When the young captain tries to stem some of the violence instigated and or condoned by his colonel, Silence isn’t sure at first if she can trust him. He is, after all, still an enemy. But he’s also the first to truly see into her heart and realize the woman she really is. Initially there are only occasional hints of his feelings and since most of the first half of the book is told only from Silence’s POV, we don’t quite know what Nick is up to either.
Can she forget the tenets of a lifetime, beaten into her by her Puritan father, and the risks she runs and reach out for something she’s never had? Can he ignore the daily reminders that the war isn’t going in the King’s favor and that probably soon he’ll have to leave this household and its mistress who has turned from a harmless dalliance into something much deeper? I like that Silence does a lot of thinking about what her position, marriage and religion demand of her. Adultery is nothing for a Puritan or a woman in this age to lightly brush off as the punishment would be severe. Bonus points that Nick loves Silence just as she is with her sober dress and white caps. It’s his love for her that makes her beautiful in his eyes.
You do a great job with the setting and events of the times. It’s a long (614 pages in my hardback copy) book and some will grow impatient with the slow pace but it shows a wealth of detail about life in a country house of that era, of the politics of the war, and of the people of Somerset. We can truly see that a household of this era wasn’t just the family that owned it but also the servants. Silence knows each and every one of them and we get to know them too. Their strengths and weaknesses, their foibles and idiosyncrasies. They are truly all in this together and the household will sink or swim together. One very nice thing is reading the dialogue and not being subjected to cockney accents as the universal servant language of England. I think I also mentioned this in the review of “The Moon in the Water” but it bears repeating.
Wintercombe is ultimately a story of bittersweet love and of two people who have found their soulmate and who know that it won’t last. Like the Lymond books, the payoff is a while in coming but when it does, it is very powerful. It’s not easy to read a book which you hope will have an ending other than the one you know it does. Some people won’t want to read it for that reason and some because it does deal with adultery. But it is a well written love story and one I’m glad I tracked down back in the day and which I’m glad to see available now. There are three more books in the series and from the blurb of the next book, it seems Nick and Silence will finally get the ending they deserve. A-