London 1826. Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton with his salivary incontinence and dead-mouse stink. Discovering she is a pawn in an arrangement between slobbery Silverton and her calculating father, Grace is devastated when Silverton reveals his true callous nature.
Refusing this fate, Grace resolves to stow away. Heading to the docks, disguised as a lad to ease her escape, she encounters smooth-talking naval recruiter, Gilly, who lures her aboard HMS Discerning with promises of freedom and exploration in South America.
When Grace’s big mouth lands her bare-bottomed over a cannon for insubordination, her identity is exposed. The captain wants her back in London but his orders, to chart the icy archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, forbid it. Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam gallantly offers to take Grace off the fretting captain’s hands by placing her under his protection.
Grace must now win over the crew she betrayed with her secret, while managing her feelings towards her taciturn protector, whose obstinate chivalry stifles her new-found independence.
An excerpt from the novel, followed by my review.
London, 13 May 1826
A deep-throated rumble of laughter drew Grace’s eyes across the crowded drawing room, and over to Uncle Farfar. Heading over to him, she admired the double row of gold buttons on his blue naval coat glinting in the luminescence of the gilt chandelier above. The crystal beads cast a sprinkling of starlight around the room. Grace thought the evening had a distinctly tropical aura with wide-fronded palms and vines spilling from all corners in a waterfall of greenery. Grace also thought Mothers’ décor was fanciful and faux.
Uncle Farfar beckoned a young man, the single epaulette on his right shoulder announcing that he was a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. “Ah, Fitzwilliam. Just in time,” beamed Uncle Farfar, his face flushed with pleasure. Uncle Farfar was actually Admiral Arthur Jameson Baxter, highly decorated for his successful engagement in Admiral Nelson’s campaign at the Battle of Trafalgar. He had lovingly endured the childhood nickname Grace had bestowed upon him when she was eighteen months old, and unable to pronounce his name, Uncle Arthur. He had not escaped the deep weathering of a man who had spent his life at sea, and though his face was much rounder these days, Grace thought he still had a kindness in his eyes.
Centring himself between Grace and the new arrival, Uncle Farfar said, “Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam, may I introduce you to Miss Grace Baxter, my niece and the delight of my life.”
Grace smiled politely, admiring the shades of gold shimmering across Fitzwilliam’s smoothed-back hair, caught tidily in a black silk ribbon at his graceful nape.
“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Baxter,” said Fitzwilliam, formally kissing her hand.
“Lieutenant.” Grace took her hand back, fingers curling, and Fitzwilliam clasped his own behind his back.
Uncle Farfar’s sharp eyes flicked across the room, and his cordiality shrivelled. “God save us, see who approaches? Lord Silverton.”
To Grace, Lord Silverton appeared closer to a hundred years old, despite him only being in his early fifties. He was also a childless widower of renowned wealth and lineage. His bulging midriff announced no shortage of good food. He had been a mysterious figure on the outskirts of Grace’s life since she could remember, but no number of years had lessened her discomfort around him.
“Your servant, madam,” drawled Silverton, bowing stiffly.
Grace dipped her head in greeting, lowering her gaze from Silverton’s beady eyes to the neatly tied cravat at the base of his bulbous, waggling chin. How could any respectable lady willingly draw herself to the attention of this crusty, timeworn creature?
“Your gown is simply delightful, Miss Baxter,” said Silverton. “Reminds me of the gossamer wings of a dragonfly.” Silverton’s obtrusive stare seemed to blacken Uncle Farfar’s mood further.
Oblivious, Silverton droned on, “Fascinating creatures! Dragonfly rituals of courtship may seem romantic to those inclined to observe the world through rose-coloured spectacles, but the amazing show of flips and spirals is usually the female trying to escape the boorish behaviour of the males.”
“I cannot possibly imagine how that feels,” Grace muttered, peering impassively around the crowded room. Fitzwilliam’s quick dry cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and Grace studied him from the corner of her eye. His face betrayed nothing.
Just then the butler rang the bell. Silverton’s beady eyes fixed on Grace. “Would you care to dine with me this evening, Miss Baxter?”
Uncle Farfar cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind Silverton, I’d appreciate my niece’s company this evening.” Uncle Farfar drew Grace away before Silverton could say anything more, and ushered her into the dining room. Fitzwilliam followed two steps behind with his allotted dinner companion, Miss Pettigrew. Her petite hand curled in his elbow, and her coifed black hair barely met his shoulder. Grace had made her acquaintance only once before, and realised with a sinking heart that she was in for an evening of little to no conversation with the demure creature, should she sit beside her. The stretched table was laid with the snowiest of linen, and set with such precision that even the King of England would have been pressed to find fault.
Uncle Farfar waved at the empty chairs. “Would you care to sit between Lieutenant Fitzwilliam and I, Grace dear? You might need to give me a kick under the table if we bore you with too much naval chatter.”
Grace sank into her chair. “Nonsense, Uncle. I do so enjoy your tales.”
Fitzwilliam waited for Miss Pettigrew to be seated as she gave him a simpering smile. A wave of relief washed over Grace at not being stuck with Silverton for the evening. Uncle Farfar clearly had the same thoughts, and he chuckled, “At least you’re squirrelled with us, away from that pompous windbag.”
Grace peered down the long table, her eyes narrowing as she caught Silverton’s beady eyes, grey as a wolf’s pelt, roaming freely across her décolletage. She scratched absentmindedly at the fine lace edging around the low neck of her lavender gown, aware that her unladylike fidgeting would likely irk Father at some point in the evening. But it could not be helped. Lace was wretchedly itchy.
Fitzwilliam pulled in his chair, and nodded at Captain Steven Fincham sitting stiffly opposite him like a squat Napoleonic figure. Dark circles beneath Fincham’s bleary, bloodshot eyes gave Grace the impression that he was in poor health, was suffering from the crapulous effects of intoxication, or both.
With the soup course over, Grace eyed the line of footmen entering with platters laden with succulent roast lamb. The thin slices looked perfectly browned on the outside with just a peek of pink inside. Her stomach grumbled at the rich buttery scent of the potatoes being served onto her plate. She intended to enjoy every mouthful. At the sound of cutlery pinging on glass, Grace turned her attention to her father, Lord Flint, who rose with his wine glass raised.
“As you know, my dear wife’s partiality to dinner parties ensures they happen with alarming regularity.” A polite smattering of laughter rippled around the table. “But tonight, we have two guests who deserve our well wishes.” Father inclined his bewigged head at Captain Fincham. “Captain Fincham and Lieutenant Fitzwilliam will soon be leaving England’s fair shores in an effort to expand our great nation’s knowledge of the world.” His crystal cut glass glimmered in the candlelight. “To a safe and prosperous journey, gentlemen.”
“To a safe and prosperous journey,” echoed the diners.
Uncle Farfar’s grey head peered around Grace at Fitzwilliam. “Where are you off to this time, Lieutenant?”
Relieved to be released from Fincham’s melancholy, and Miss Pettigrew’s muteness, Grace widened her eyes, equally interested to hear his answer.
“Plymouth first, to pick up the rest of the ship’s company and fresh supplies, before we sail to Tierra del Fuego,” said Fitzwilliam.
“Damned notorious waters off the Horn of South America, eh?” declared Uncle Farfar.
“That’s right,” interrupted Fincham, his unsteady hand lowering his empty glass to the table. “We’re sailing out tomorrow on the Discerning. To chart the coasts between Montevideo and Chiloé Island.”
“Ah, yes, the hydrographic survey! I recall hearing of it around the Admiralty.” Uncle Farfar’s eyes blazed. “The Royal Navy has been around those parts for years, but they’ve few charts to show for it. About time someone had a crack at it.” He inclined his head at Fitzwilliam. “Sounds just the kind of adventure a young man like you would relish.”
“Indeed, sir.” Fitzwilliam agreed.
Grace tucked a chocolate corkscrew of hair, that had rebelliously come undone, behind her ear. “What a pity you shan’t be here for the ball next week, Lieutenant. Mother will no doubt outdo herself again.” Fitzwilliam was about to reply when Lady Flint’s tinkling laughter drew his attention down the other end of the table. Despite numerous suitors declaring that Grace’s natural beauty stemmed from her mother, Grace thought Lady Flint’s shrewd eyes and downturned mouth erased all prettiness. She glanced back at the handsome naval officer beside her.
“You’ll have to pardon me, Miss Baxter,” Fitzwilliam said ruefully. “I find society balls to be little more than an exercise in attaching one unwitting party to another, usually for monetary gain.”
“Hear, hear!” Fincham banged the table, jangling the silverware. Miss Pettigrew squeaked with fright. Fincham blustered, “The oceans of the world are far less dangerous to navigate as far as I’m concerned.”
Grace laughed. “I quite agree, Captain Fincham. Father had me all but married off to Colonel Dunne until he found out he’s as poor as a church mouse and about to be shipped off to India.” She turned to Fitzwilliam, one brow arching as she whispered from the corner of her mouth, “Dull as a butter knife too.”
Clearly amused by her honesty, Fitzwilliam’s shoulders jiggled with silent laughter, and he smirked. Grace had never understood how Father threw her at suitors who were highly suitable on paper but wholly unsuitable in person.
Now you’ve read the excerpt, here’s my review:
A young woman discovers she’s been promised to a disgusting old lecher, and so, she runs away. Not the first time this scenario has started a story, but the young woman in question doesn’t usually end up as a cabin boy on a survey vessel!
But that’s exactly where Grace Baxter’s flight takes her, and the twists and turns of her story (or should I say the ebb and swell, as we’re aboard ship?) as she adapts to life on board, learns the skills of seamanship, and fights for acceptance among the other men make for entertaining reading. We meet an array of characters against whom Grace must pit her wits – and her fists – to take her place as one of the crew, creating an ensemble cast, each of whom adds in their own way to the story.
Emma Lombard’s debut novel is full of detail that helps the reader envision the confined world of the Discerning, the ship on which she’s taken refuge. It’s clearly well researched: the daily tasks of the crew; the fear when Grace must learn to climb rigging; the food served, and the stench of the sleeping quarters all serve to create a believable backdrop to Grace’s tale.
Many conflicts and reversals, big and small, keep the reader’s attention, without feeling forced or added simply to have yet another problem to be solved. Discerning Grace is a romance, too; can you put a determined young woman and an honourable lieutenant together on a ship without one? Discerning Grace is an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.
Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace is the first book in The White Sails Series.