ANYONE who enjoys the naval historical novels of Patrick O’Brian will like Summer’s Grace, by Vanessa Hannam.
It tells the story of Commodore George Anson’s voyage in his flagship Centurion, leaving Portsmouth in 1740 to circumnavigate the globe, accompanied by four other great ships. All superficially looks well, but the crews supplied by the corrupt Admiralty are poor sick men impressed from jails, hospitals, and street corners; the ships themselves are already alive with rats and lice; and food stocks are of the poorest quality.
Unlike O’Brian’s books, Hannam’s main narrative concentrates on those who are left behind: the families who will have to wait months, even years, without news of their loved ones. She focuses on Anson’s mistress, the colourful Donna Consuelo, with her beloved little page, Pepe, and on the delightful Clapham-based family of Matthew Lively, Captain of the Centurion, and principally on Mathew’s highly musical daughter, Grace. Though from a modest family, Grace’s voice will obviously take her far.
This is the London of King George II and his colourful, corrupt court. When Grace sings for the music-loving King at a concert in the composer Handel’s house, she is an immediate success, and soon falls in love with her brilliant accompanist. But she is also noticed by Sir Hartley Slinkwell, the aptly named villain, whose motives are of the basest. “He had a compelling desire to contaminate happiness and watch its destruction.”
His lurid machinations add spice and tension to the story, and his end is a fitting and well-deserved one. “As the priest has said, it is not how your life begins that is the measure of it, but how it ends.”
This comment becomes painfully relevant when Commodore Anson’s flagship makes it back to Portsmouth after two gruelling years, and Matthew Lively is finally reunited with his family, a rich but a dying man.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
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