Emma Smallwood, determined to help her widowed father regain his spirits when his academy fails, agrees to travel with him to the distant Cornwall coast, to the cliff-top manor of a baronet and his four sons. But after they arrive and begin teaching the younger boys, mysterious things begin to happen and danger mounts. Who does Emma hear playing the pianoforte, only to find the music room empty? Who sneaks into her room at night? Who rips a page from her journal, only to return it with a chilling illustration? The baronet’s older sons, Phillip and Henry, wrestle with problems–and secrets–of their own. They both remember Emma Smallwood from their days at her father’s academy. She had been an awkward, studious girl. But now one of them finds himself unexpectedly drawn to her. When the suspicious acts escalate, can the clever tutor’s daughter figure out which brother to blame… and which brother to trust with her heart?
Heat level – 1
Review rating – 4.5 stars
Review by Caz
The Tutor’s Daughter is an well-written and engaging romantic mystery set in Cornwall in the early years of the 19th Century, at a time when the Cornish coast was a haven for smugglers and “wreckers” (locals who would plunder the goods of foundering and wrecked ships, often ignoring the plight of the crew in favour of saving the cargo).
Emma Smallwood lives with her widowed father at his small boys’ school in Devonshire, but since the death of her mother two years previously, Mr Smallwood has not taken a great deal of interest in his school which has led to a decline in the number of pupils attending. Following the departure of their most recent pupil, Emma decides to try to drum up some business – this is their livelihood, after all – and to that end writes to Sir Giles Weston, father of Henry and Philip Weston, who attended the school some years ago, to ascertain if he has any interest in sending his two younger sons (twins Julian and Rowan) to be educated at the school.
Surprisingly, his response is to invite Mr Smallwood and Emma to his home, to tutor the boys there, a proposal which Mr Smallwood is keen to accept.
Emma has fond memories of Philip Weston, but not so of his older brother who used to tease her unkindly and continually subject her to pranks; so while she is keen to see Philip and even harbours some romantic feelings for him, she is more apprehensive about meeting Henry again.
I really enjoyed the story. There is a Jane Eyre-ish quality to the early part of the book in that there appears to be a mysterious stranger in the house who is prone to wandering around late at night. That part of the mystery is, however, solved about half-way through the book (and the attentive reader will probably have made a reasonable guess as to the solution by then anyway!) , but there are many more sinister goings-on at Ebbington Manor which kept me anxiously turning the pages.
The Weston family is clearly hiding more than just a “madwoman in the attic”, however. The second Lady Weston rules the roost; Sir Giles is often apathetic and usually goes along with his wife’s wishes in order to have a quiet life. Their teenaged sons Rowan and Julian are surly and rude, and her ladyship’s ward, Lizzie Henshaw is at one moment a vapid girl desirous of nothing more than pretty dresses and town gossip, and the next is spiteful and catty, a mass of contradiction. Emma hasn’t had a lot of female companionship in her life and initially hopes that they can be friends, but it soon becomes apparent that Lizzie is rather unstable and only interested in herself.
I don’t like to say too much about the plots of the books I review so as not to spoil them for potential readers, and I think it’s even more imperative that I don’t give too much away when reviewing a mystery story. Suffice to say that I found the mysteries and their resolutions to be satisfying and that although I had my suspicions as to how certain characters were tied together, there were still some surprises along the way.
Running alongside the mystery is the story of the deepening friendship between Emma and Henry. Initially, she distrusts him intensely, believing him to be the same boy who tormented her at the school. This may seem very naïve – and in fact there was the odd time I rolled my eyes and thought that she needed to realise that Henry has grown up in more ways than one; but it’s very clear that Henry’s pranks and teasing cut her quite deeply and so I suppose it’s natural for her to retain her suspicions of him until he begins to prove to her that he can be trusted.
But prove it he does. Henry and Emma strike up a tentative friendship which quickly turns into mutual affection and understanding. Emma is surprised to find herself attracted to him and the romance between them develops at a good pace – although I did think that the reasons that (briefly) separated them towards the end of the book were somewhat flimsy.
If I have one quibble about the book, it is with Henry’s questioning of Emma’s faith – or lack of it. Clearly, this is a book with a Christian message, and I have no problem with that, provided that message is handled subtly – which for the most part it is. I just felt that the passages in which Henry tried to restore Emma’s faith in prayer were somewhat jarring when set alongside the presentation of the rest of the story. I would almost say that those sections felt like conscious “insertions” rather than an organic part of the novel as a whole. That said, however, I thought that the part where Henry tried to talk to his brother about God and his concept of Him worked much better contextually.
Taken as a whole, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. The characterisation is consistent, the various plot threads are skilfully woven together and the romance is charmingly done.
With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the review copy.