When I close a book and immediately begin imagining the “ever after” of the hero and heroine, constructing all sorts of interesting scenarios about their futures, then I know that the story has worked for me. As I went to bed last night with visions of Lucas and Jessie dancing in my head, there seems no doubt that Candice Proctor’s third Australian-set romance is another winner.
While her critically acclaimed Night in Eden dealt with the convict system in its earlier days, Whispers of Heaven takes place in 1840 on the island of Tasmania. By now, Australia is no longer a rough frontier. For those who have been able to take advantage of the cheap convict labor and the abundant land, there have been profits enough to recreate the life of the English gentry. To such a family belongs the heroine, Jesmond Corbett.
Jessie’s father had amassed a fortune and built a home that looks like a castle, filled with elegant furnishings and surrounded by lovely gardens. (The head gardener was transported for embezzling from his noble employer.) Her mother, Beatrice, proud of her genteel blood, is determined that her only surviving daughter act like the perfect lady. Her doting father had given into Jessie’s pleas and sent her off to London to pursue her interest in science.
Now she is returning home after two years away. In the intervening time her father had died but his wishes live on.. He had wanted her to marry the neighboring landholder, Harrison Winthrop Tate, and before she left, Jessie had agreed to become his wife. She was not coerced; she and Harrison had been friends since childhood. But while part of her accepts the life she will have as his wife, another part asks the age-old question, “Is this all there is?”
Lucas Gallagher is a convict laborer on the Corbett estate. He has been transported for life, with no hope of pardon or parole, for his activities in the Irish resistance movement. When Jessie’s brother Warrick discovers the convict’s talent with horses, he is promoted from working in the quarries to the position of groom. Part of his duties center on taming the magnificent horse that Jessie brought back with her. Another part consists of accompanying her on her rambles around the countryside. Thus, Jessie comes to know this unusual convict, a man of education and culture whose crime was to oppose those who oppressed his country.
Proctor has certainly established a seemingly intransigent external conflict. The growing attraction and love between Jessie and Lucas is doomed from the start and they both know it. The caste system in Victorian Australia was fixed and immutable. The daughter of a gentleman could not stoop to wed an emancipated convict, let alone one who has no hope of freedom. Moreover, there is the problem of her betrothal to Harrison, a man who loves her but neither understands her nor even tries to.
In a very real sense, this is Jessie’s story. Her struggle to conform to the constricting role that society imposes on women is at its heart. Try as she may, she can’t fit herself into the accepted patterns and her growing love for Lucas makes her question even more the future that has been mapped out for her. What makes her such an interesting and powerful character is that her dilemma is presented realistically and she does not easily reject the expectations of family and society.
Lucas, while well drawn and certainly attractive, is a less compelling character than Jessie, perhaps because his motivations are less complex. That he should love this free-spirited woman who looks beyond his convict status and sees the real man makes eminent sense. But he actually has less to lose by loving Jessie although he feels the poignancy of their doomed love every bit as much.
Proctor creates a cast of fully developed secondary characters as well, whether these are the members of the Corbett and Tate families or the convicts who unwillingly serve them. Her descriptions of the casual brutality of the convict system juxtaposed against the luxurious life of those who benefited from it are a telling commentary on what was an inhumane institution.
Whispers of Heaven has everything a reader could want. It has a lovely romance, a compelling heroine and an attractive hero. It has wonderful descriptions of a faraway land of surpassing beauty. It has danger and adventure. It is one of the best historical romances I have read this year.