England, 1763. The Earl of Salt Hendon and squire’s daughter Jane Despard share a secret past of mistrust and heartache. Forced into a marriage neither wants, the patient and ever optimistic Jane believes love conquers all; the Earl will take some convincing. Enter Diana St. John, who will go to extremes, even murder, to hold the Earl’s attention. Can the newlyweds overcome past prejudices and sinister opposition to fall in love all over again?
Rating: B for narration; B for content
Salt Bride is a thoroughly enjoyable story set in the Georgian era, in which the author’s sense of style and her evocative descriptions of the clothing and various settings bring the period vividly to life.
At the beginning of the story, Miss Jane Despard is obliged to marry the handsome and wealthy Earl of Salt Hendon (or “Salt”, as he is known). One might think being married to a man blessed with both wealth and good-looks would be no hardship, but Salt and Jane have a history which neither of them can ignore. Four years previously, Salt proposed to – and was accepted by – the lovely Jane and, carried away on the tide of passion, the pair anticipated their vows. Fully intending to present himself to her father the following day, Salt is unexpectedly called away, and when he returns a few weeks later, it’s to discover that Jane has been thrown out of her father’s house and is living under the same roof as her uncle-by-marriage, the prosperous merchant, Jacob Allenby.
Hurt and angry at what he believes to be Jane’s heartless defection, Salt assumes Jane is under Allenby’s “protection” as well as under his roof, and takes himself back to London to embark on a spectacular round of bed-hopping. Jane, whose father disowned her when she discovered she was pregnant, believes Salt abandoned her after having his way with her, as he never made any attempt to see or contact her following the letter she sent advising him of her situation. But years later, fate has a cruel sense of irony, and in order to fulfil the terms of her guardian’s will and prevent the financial ruin of her beloved step-brother, Jane has no alternative but to marry Salt after all.
She’s never fallen out of love with him, but his reaction to her is cold and harsh. He is being forced into this marriage because his sense of honour will not allow him to renege on a promise made to Jane’s father on his death-bed. He does not scruple to make Jane fully aware that he is not marrying her by choice, and indeed treats her very poorly, insulting her and telling her that once married, she will be shut away in the country while he gets on with his life in town. And while Jane knows she has no alternative but to go through with the marriage, she is no pushover and gives back as good as she gets, making it clear that she is just as unhappy about the situation as Salt is.
Obviously, this is not the best basis for a marriage – and it’s also not an uncommon premise in an historical romance. The couple has to navigate their way through misunderstanding and misdirection, much of it orchestrated by the villain of the piece, Lady Diana St. John, who is Salt’s cousin, and obsessed with him to the point of madness. As the story progresses, Jane and Salt grow closer and rekindle their old feelings for each other, as well as coming to understand the reasons behind their misconceptions about each other and, more importantly, the lengths Diana has gone to – and is prepared, still, to go to – in order to get what she wants. Knowing that Salt will never marry her, she nonetheless aims to keep him for herself by acting as his hostess and remaining constantly at his side through the glittering political career for which she believes he is destined.
While the story of the forced-into-marriage may be somewhat formulaic, I was nonetheless compelled to keep listening by the quality of the writing, storytelling and narration, and by the deliciously despicable Diana, who is a brilliantly realised character. She’s over-the-top for sure, but she’s so devious and clever that there are times the listener can almost believe she’s going to get away with her nefarious plans – and they really are nefarious, involving not just a determination to dispose of Jane, but revealing a streak of such dark malevolence and cruelty that makes her both repulsive and strangely compelling.
Marian Hussey isn’t a narrator I’ve listened to before, but her performance here is excellent and I will certainly be seeking out more of her work as a result.
Her voice is very pleasantly modulated and her narrative is well-paced and expressive. She differentiates very effectively between characters so that there is never any question as to who is speaking in those scenes – and there are quite a few – in which there are more than two or three characters present. Her interpretation of the various female characters is very strong, with her portrayal of Diana being the stand-out performance. That lady’s languidly supercilious utterances are laced with venom and bitterness as she cuts a swathe through London’s society as its most sought-after hostess. Ms Hussey doesn’t have a particularly deep voice, but her portrayals of the men in the story are successfully done by use of a variety of tone, pitch and timbre. For Tom, Jane’s younger half-brother, Ms Hussey adds a slight edge to her voice and introduces an element of eagerness into his words which expertly convey his youth and inexperience. Salt’s speech is considered and deliberate, with an air of authority and arrogance that perfectly reflect his austerity of character.
Overall, Salt Bride is a very enjoyable listening experience. Jane and Salt make an engaging central couple, there is a well-drawn cast of supporting characters and the makings of a secondary romance which I believe continues into the sequel. Ms Brandt’s eye for detail and her ability to craft a fast-moving, suspenseful and highly entertaining story combined with a highly polished performance from Marian Hussey make this an audio I have no hesitation in recommending to fans of historical romance and romance audiobooks alike.