The internationally best-selling author Nicola Cornick reviews A Cornish Betrothal, the fifth book in Nicola Pryce’s Cornish Saga series.
A Cornish Betrothal by Nicola Pryce is a historical novel set in Cornwall at the turn of the 18th century (the clue is in the title!). Historical novels of this era and with this setting, particularly if they are romantic novels, tend to be seen through the prism of Winston Graham’s Poldark series.
This creates a certain expectation in readers that they want to see fulfilled: they expect a sweeping story with an epic romance. However this sort of typecasting can also be reductive. A Cornish Betrothal is rich and multi-faceted. It’s an adventure story with an intricate plot, a family saga with a host of well-drawn characters and a love story with a very satisfying ending. This is a rewarding read for anyone who appreciates good historical writing.
Cornwall has become a very popular setting for novels, both contemporary and historical, and it’s easy to see why. The county is a character in itself. The rugged scenery, the changeable weather and the many faces of the sea all lend themselves to drama and provide an opportunity for gloriously descriptive writing. In A Cornish Betrothal the descriptions are beautiful and atmospheric, whether in portraying Bodmin Moor in winter, a voyage around the coast, or the scents and sights of the quayside.
The story begins at a dramatic turning point. The year is 1798, it is Amelia Carew’s birthday and she is in love with physician Luke Bohenna. Out of the blue a letter arrives which suggests that her former fiancé, Edmund Melville, who was missing at sea and believed lost, may actually be alive.
We are immediately plunged with Amelia into a terrible emotional dilemma as she is torn between the man she now loves and the vows she made to Edmund when they were nineteen years old. She resolves to honour her commitment to Edmund, but upon his return she finds him a very changed man.
When Amelia goes to stay with Edmund and Connie at their ancestral home of Pendowrick, the book becomes darker and more Gothic. The old house on the moor has a strong and brooding presence, it has been a witness to dark deeds, and Connie is attuned to signs and omens of the supernatural. This shade is contrasted very adeptly with Amelia’s bright spirit and the warmth and light of her own home and family, and there is a real sense of menace in these scenes.
Tension builds and the pace quickens as Amelia and Luke set out to protect a friend from Edmund’s vengeance and uncover a conspiracy of lies and deception. The plot is full of intrigue and adventure, and it twists and turns as revelations follow each other. A number of sub-plot threads are neatly drawn together as everything comes to a very satisfying conclusion.
Amelia’s emotional conflict is exceptionally well drawn. A strong and sympathetic heroine she is nevertheless a woman of her time, constrained by the social restrictions placed upon her, as is Edmund’s sister Connie, who is expected to make a marriage worthy of the sister of a baronet.
It’s heartening to see, though, a range of female characters who achieve much as professional women, as well as with their skills and interests; women may well be the keepers of secrets in this story, but they are also skilled herbalists, glovemakers and ship brokers, amongst other things.
All the relationships in the book, whether romantic, familial or with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances are portrayed with depth and real human detail. As a reader you can feel the warmth of the affection in Amelia’s family and are immediately drawn into their world.
I found the first-person narrative quite unusual in this style of book but very effective. It takes us directly into Amelia’s thoughts and feelings and makes them more immediate.
Nicola Pryce’s research into both the wider Cornish setting and the herbalist background of her heroine is impressively rich and detailed but dropped lightly into the book where it enhances the characters and the storyline.
A Cornish Betrothal is book five in the Cornish Saga series but it reads beautifully as a stand-alone novel. It may be an even richer experience to read it as part of the series and I’ll certainly be catching up with the rest of the books having enjoyed this one so much.
Nicola Cornick is the author of four dual time novels set between the 16th and the 18th centuries. Her latest, The Forgotten Sister, is based on the mysterious death of Amy Robsart, first wife of Robert Dudley, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.
Read Nicola Cornick’s interview in Historia, where she talks about writing dual timeline novels, attitudes to historical romance, and filling in the gaps in the known records with her imagination.