May 12, 2013

Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg Novels


In honor of Mother's Day, I thought I'd finally get around to sharing brief reviews for Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg novels; some of my mom's favorite books. They're a series of seven historical fiction books covering the sprawling Day/Sprague/Murray/Campion family from their origins in the Revolutionary War up through World War Two.

Dawn's Early Light

Probably my favorite in the series, this book tells of Julian Day (a staunch Tory) who arrives in Virginia in 1771, and who becomes close friends with American patriot St. John Sprague. Both men are in love with spoiled beauty Regina Greensleeves for a time, but in the long run Julian realizes he cares for someone else.

Julian's romance with the shy, but brilliant Tabitha Mawes is sweet; I just love Tibby's character. I also love that the book is set in Williamsburg (the capital of Virginia at the time), so the characters casually interact with people like Jefferson and Washington.

Yankee Stranger

Tibby Day is now 95, and her great-granddaughter Eden is just 17. It's 1860 and there are rumors of war, but Tibby can't believe that another war could come so "soon" to the United States. Eden is strangely attracted to Cabot Murray - but he's a Yankee! How can a southern belle admit her feelings for a northern reporter?

The romance of Cabot and Eden stretches across the war; and they each suffer deep losses along the way. This book made me cry the hardest when re-reading them; it's tough to see such a close-knit family torn by war. And the love story of Eden's sister Susannah? TRAGIC.

Ever After

Bracken Murray and his sister Virginia are off to England to start up an English branch of the Murray's newspaper and get Virginia presented at court.*

Bracken and Virginia go back to Farthingale**, a house originally owned by St. John Sprague's family 130 years earlier, and decide to buy it. Coincidentally, the Earl's family next door has seven children - among whom are Archie, whom Virginia finds alluring, and Dinah, with whom Bracken is completely besotted.

But Dinah is underage, so Bracken has to head off to Cuba to report on the Spanish-American war without revealing his feelings. He takes with him his cousin Fitz Sprague, who leaves behind a new romance of his own in New York...

Quirky Bookworm, Elswyth Thane, Farthingale

The Light Heart

This tells of Fitz's younger sister Phoebe, who is engaged to cousin Miles Day, but ends up getting to go to England thanks to the generosity of Aunt Susannah. In England Phoebe meets Oliver Campion (brother of Dinah and Archie); and they fall desperately in love. But Oliver is engaged, and Phoebe is engaged, so they decide to do the honorable thing and go their separate ways.

A decade passes, and Phoebe becomes a famous author, but she can't quite shake her feelings for Oliver. A trip to Germany to visit her old friend Rosalind makes her realize that war between England and Germany is looming. And sure enough, soon Phoebe, Virginia, Dinah, and the rest of the women in the family are busy nursing; while the soldiers like Oliver fight, and the reporters like Bracken rush frantically into the front lines searching for stories.

I didn't like The Light Heart as well the first time I read it; I think I was too young to appreciate Phoebe and Oliver's nobility. But I really liked it a lot this time around, and I'd probably call it my 2nd or 3rd favorite.

Kissing Kin

Twins Calvert and Camilla, niece and nephew of Miles Day (who was briefly married to Phoebe Sprague), head to England to join the fight, since Woodrow Wilson can't decide to enter the war or not. Camilla falls in love with a most unsuitable man, while Calvert is wounded in battle.

Camilla nurses Calvert for several years, but his death in the early 1920s sends her back to Europe to visit the family. Along the way she becomes a celebrated singer, leads a shockingly modern (by Williamsburg standards) life in Cannes, and dabbles at love with several different men. Finally, on the brink of WWII, she finds true love of her own.

This Was Tomorrow

Archie and Virginia's youngest, Evadne, has been sucked into a cult, along with Oliver's poisonous daughter Hermione. Luckily Stephen Sprague (Fitz's son) has recently come from America, and decides to make it his mission to rescue and marry Evadne.

This is my least favorite of the series - because Evadne herself is so annoyingly wishy-washy and in need of rescue, unlike most of Thane's heroines, and because Hermione is AWFUL. I want to kill her the whole time. This is the only book that doesn't take place during an active war - but rather in the 2-3 years leading up to WWII, and apparently Thane decided that since the family wasn't fighting the Germans, they needed to fight each other a little. I wish she'd settled for a book without an antagonist.


Jefferson Day, Phoebe's son, who was raised by Bracken and Dinah Murray (it's complicated), is in love with his cousin Sylvia Sprague. (Yeah, there are quite a few cousin romances in this series!) But Virginia's granddaughter Mab is desperately in love with Jeff. And although Mab is only 13, the family is uneasy, because Jeff is the spitting image of Julian Day, and Mab looks just like Tibby's portrait. And the British Mab, who's never even been to America, seems to have a spooky knowledge of what Williamsburg is like.

As the Blitz rains down on London, the Murrays, Campions, Days, and Spragues pluckily throw themselves into rescue efforts; and the series ends perhaps a bit anticlimactically, but still satisfactorily.

I highly recommend the whole series - but especially books 1 - 4. They're superb.

What book does your mom love?

*Small complaint alert: their middle sister Marietta is mentioned casually in this book and in books 4 and 5, and then vanishes completely. Middle children do this a lot in the Williamsburg novels -- as does Eden herself! It drives me crazy that Thane never mentions Eden dying or anything, she just kind of fizzles out of the story. I almost want to write some fan fiction to wrap up some of the unfinished stories.

**In 2001 my aunt and I spent a whole day driving through tiny villages in the Cotswolds looking for Farthingale. We finally settled on a lovely manor house outside Lower Slaughter as Thane's probable inspiration, because in Ever After she mentions that the village near Farthingale has a stream running right down the center of the main street; just like Lower Slaughter does.

This post contains affiliate links.