Ciji Ware's The Island of the Swans: a romantic triangle in Scotland
Nov 9, 2005
Review by Rebecca Huston
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Great romance, well-researched, this is a five star read.
Cons:Sure, it sounds preposterous. But it really happened.
The Bottom Line: Politics, love triangles, forbidden love, honour, and lots of scenery chewing. What's not to like?
After my last excursion in historical reading, Mistress of the House I found tucked away into the notes a reference to Ciji Ware's novel, The Island of the Swans. I had read it when it first came out in the 1980's and then promptly forgot it. Clearly it was time to take another look.
Recommend this product?
It's popular for authors to take actual folks who lived in the past, and weave them into their novels. Sometimes they take an ancillary role, other times they get to be the main character. Sometimes the formula works, and most of the time it's a dismal failure. All too often authors mess about with the settings, or the attitudes of the time, or just paste a modern romance into fancy clothing and castles, and the reader ends up with a mish-mash of anachronisms.
But Ware goes the extra mile with this novel. Her heroine is a true one, Jane Maxwell, the Duchess of Gordon, who went from poverty to marrying one of the wealthiest and powerful men in Scotland, and became one of London's most astute political hostesses. But the private life of Jane Maxwell was just as tumultuous as the political setting. Born into a broken home, where her ambitious mother tries to make ends meet in Edinburgh, while her father drinks himself to oblivion in the country, Jane is a hoyden, riding on pig's backs in races with her younger sister, and making fast friends with a fellow ruffian, Thomas Fraser. For them, life in Edinburgh's streets is rough and tumble, and Jane is stubborn and feels that ladylike pursuits are a waste of time. As for Thomas, he's certainly fond of his playmate, but he also knows that his future lays in serving in George III's army so he can regain the family estates lost in the rebellion against England. But a horrible accident leaves Jane with a missing finger and both children in disgrace.
Despite all that, Jane and Thomas do come to love one another deeply, and when they become engaged, both of their families fight the match. But a compromise is reached, and they will be allowed to marry once Thomas comes back after serving in the Americas in one of King George's 'little' wars against the natives. But when word comes that Thomas has been killed in an ambush, Jane finds herself vulnerable and heartbroken.
So naturally, another suitor arrives on the scene, Alexander Gordon, and he is determined to have Jane, even if she's a reluctant bride. But gradually she is won over, and they are married. In a twist that seems fictional -- but appears to be the truth -- on the eve of the wedding, it is discovered that Thomas has survived, and the families decide that Jane should not be told. But the truth comes out, and can it be possible to love two men at once?
That's the plot in this entertaining novel. I was expecting something rather trite and so-so, and instead, I found the setting and characters very believable, and the conflicts and reactions between the three characters of Alex, Jane and Thomas convincing. All three of them make some good and some bad choices with their lives, sometimes they act in difficult ways, but they are also appealing people in their own right, and the author worked hard at making them so to the audience. To me, that's the sign of a damn good writer.
Set in the years between 1760 and 1797, Ware also crafts her setting just as carefully as she did her characters. Historical figures such as the Prince of Wales, Jane's children, Jean Christie, and others are just as interesting as the main characters, and if you are already knowledgeable about Georgian England, you'll have a wonderful time picking out people you've read about before, some presented in a very different light.
Most remarkable was some of the events that happen in the book are actually documented. Jane really did race pigs in the street as a child, did lose a finger in an accident, had that remarkable conversation about her daughter with Lord Cornwallis. The Gordon Riots did happen, and the arguments between Jane and Alex were more likely than not. When Ware steps out of the history, she explains why she did it, and makes a convincing arguement for Thomas Fraser being the mysterious third man in a triangle that sounds outrageous to us today, but actually was accepted in high society, as long as everyone stayed discreet about it.
If you want some blood-thumping romance, entanglements, history and pageantry, this is one not to be missed. Happily, it's still in print, and worth the effort to find. Reprinted in 1998, Ware went through and tightened up her novel in spots and issued a new edition.
The Island of Swans
1988, 1998; A Fawcett Gold Medal Book, Ballentine Publishing Inc.
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