Publishing year: 2005
I love Judith Lennox’s books, and I was sure this one wouldn’t disappoint me.
From the first I’ve become engrossed in the story of Bess. It starts in 1914 when the war in Europe is raging. Bess is on her way to England from India. She is a widow since her husband had a riding accident and died. She leaves behind her two-year-old son Frazer reluctantly. Her mother-in-law convinced her that she needed to go back to her father, who is in England, while she looked after Frazer. Then when Bess was settled in England, she could send for her son. I knew from the first that Bess wouldn’t see her son again, and her mother-in-law would keep him for herself. I wasn’t wrong. After finding out that her father is in debt and very sick, Bess finds accommodation while looking after him. Then she starts writing to her mother-in-law and has no reply. When her father dies and having no news from her mother-in-law, she goes to Scotland where she hopes Frazer is. Her mother-in-law told her that they would be visiting her brother-in-law later in the year, but her hopes crumble when her in-laws are not there and the brother-in-law knows nothing about their visit. It is then that Bess realizes that Cora has double-crossed her.
Bess decides to stay in Edinburgh and knows she needs to go back to India for her son, but she has no money or any means. So she reaches a resolution: she’ll find a well-off man and marry him. With her beauty and charm, that doesn’t prove to be difficult. Ralph is a well-off man who Bess tries to allure into marriage. She finds him boring and doesn’t love him, but her aim to find her son is stronger than her moral principles. I think Bess was trying to do the only thing she could do, and even though her actions are reproachable, the circumstances exonerate her.
Ralph is called to join the war, and Bess realizes that her husband is stingy with his money, and almost obsessed with accounting for every penny spent. She wants to go to India, but Ralph insists that it would be too expensive and too dangerous. So Bess stays, and then she realizes she is pregnant, and gives birth to twins: a boy she calls Michael and a girl she calls Kate. Bess is static with her children, and their presence mitigates the absence of Frazer somehow. She admits she favours Michael because he’s a boy and reminds her of Frazer. Ralph comes to Edinburgh on short leaves, and in 1917 he’s discharged from the army because of being sick.
Back home, Ralph is mesmerized and overwhelmed by all the changes in her household, especially now that there are two babies to look after. Bess isn’t pleased with his presence; she was used to being on her own and running the house as she pleased. The man also suffers nightmares from the war. Little by little, Bess realizes that there is nothing that bonds them together but the children. They are two strangers, and the adoration Ralph felt for her is gone, and she doesn’t have to pretend to love him because she has never done before. Ralph then falls sick with influenza, and Kate also contracts it. While looking after Kate, Bess falls ill as well, and when she recovers, she finds out that Kate and Ralph are fine, but her son Michael is dead. This means the end of the marriage, and Bess walks out with Kate, reaching an agreement with Ralph.
It is then that Bess tries to contact Cora again, threatening with going to India. Cora finally replies, telling her that she would be in Edinburgh. Finally, Bess sees her son, but it is as if she were seeing a stranger. Cora tells her that she is keeping Frazer, and the boy naturally doesn’t know her mum or love her. I felt so sorry for Bess and so angry with her mother-in-law. She’s done the worst thing she could do to a mother, and I’m angry she could get away with it. I hope that when the boy becomes an adult, Bess could contact him again and tells him why she wasn’t allowed to be his mother.
Then the book jumps to 1925 and focuses on Martin Jago, a doctor Bess got to meet briefly at a party. Jago is back in Edinburgh. He’s done some travelling after suffering some kind of breakdown after the war. He gets to see Bess again, and he admits he didn’t like her when he met her years ago. He learns that Bess has divorced Ralph and works in a nightclub and a dress shop. She hasn’t married again, but he’s told that she has had a long string of lovers. Bess is the kind of woman who men adore, even his friend Davey, and Jago gradually realizes that he has fallen for her, but even though he tries to find the places where she goes, he has little hope to become more than a friend.
I’m really sorry for Bess: losing two sons. It was difficult back then to be a woman on your own without the means to secure a place in society. I really hope she also finds love, and I like Jago. I hope they become more than friends, and Bess finally welcomes love in her life. It is not very clear whether Bess actually loved her first husband. She says that there was attraction and good moments together, but she is unsure whether it was real love, and Cora, her catty mother-in-law, seems to think that she only felt lust for her son.