Saturday, September 30, 2017

Heatherleigh (New Zealand Inheritance)--1957

Welcome to our new series on the novels of Essie Summers! If you're following along at home, I'll be reading these in order (Though, as soon as my copy of The Essie Summers Story arrives, I am going to inhale that like the last Snicker bar before a 30-day sugar detox.) and when I get a second, I'll be putting a handy tab up at the top of the page with a list of books and links to the reviews. 

I'll try out a few companion videos--I'd love to have a solid slate of Summers reviews on Youtube because I can pop them up pretty quickly and it would show me how I might do a similar treatment for The Neels Canon. But if they don't add anything, I will not force it. I am a leaf on the wind, as they say.

For the long-suffering Betties for whom Essie Summers is not the droid they are looking for, I thank you for your forebearance and will try my hardest to post about The Great Betty as often as possible. 

Now, may we all join hands, make a wish and jump into this adventure together?

"...the years lessen as we grow older--
that where once we were man and child,
now we are man and woman." 
Heatherleigh may be the first of Essie Summers's novels but it's the product of a honed talent. I imagine that when the manuscript first crossed the desk of Humperdink Boon, he swiveled around in his office chair and slapped Ferdinand Mills on the back. By jingo, they had a winner!

There are four characters in Heatherleigh named Robert.

  • Old Robert (called Grandy which I cannot in good conscience countenance) who owns the massive Heatherleigh estate. 
  • Dead Robert who is a minor character and one of Grandy's three deceased sons. Causes of death include: riding accident, casualty of war and drunken brawl. (Raise a glass.). 
  • Poetical Robert (Robert Burns) whose works are romantically quoted by a hot Scot on the neighboring estate. 
  • and Little Roberta, 25, and not so little anymore. She is the scion of the Heatherleigh family and only grandchild of Grandy. (shudder) I am delighted to tell you that her career is as a commercial artist, producing...corset illustrations!
Bearded Robert came to the casting call only to be told
they had filled their quota of Roberts.
Roberta's parents have died and, though they weren't on keeping-in-touch terms with the home estate, she's decided to come back to the only stable foundation she's ever known. Mind you, this foundation is constructed atop the dubious platform of just one one-month visit made when she was 12. But if a 28 day stint in rehab can change a life, who am I to raise a skeptical eyebrow?  

The memories she made were good ones and revolve around three people:

  • Cousin George, her one-time playmate. His surname is Heatherleigh but he belongs to a distant branch of the family. This does not stop him from using the estate as his home and having an opinion about the running of it.
  • Marie, the older and wiser girl. She is a cold, stone fox and Roberta Cannot.With.Her. 
  • Muir Buchanan. When she was the coltish 12-year-old, he was the 20 year old shepherd and hot Scot (Are you tired of this already? Too bad. Hot Scot. Hot Scot. Hot Scot.) tasked with keeping her out of mischief. Apropos of nothing, isn't it fortunate that Buchanan is such a nice name? 
Though Roberta thinks 'it would be fun to meet Muir again', all is not as she left it. Georgie, once a nature-loving, 'braw laddie', has grown a bit hard and grumpy-pants. Marie, once easy to dismiss as a scheming bubble-head, has nursed Old Robert recently and works as a matron for a boys orphanage. (Deliciously, this does not make Roberta suddenly like her.)

Roberta was a confirmed Marie-skeptic.
But it's Muir that makes Roberta the most uncomfortable. (Why can't he just stay where he was so that Roberta can be sentimental and nostalgic about him?) Once upon a time, he was just her grandfather's shepherd (Farm boy, fetch me that pitcher.) but here he is, wandering out in the moonlight to smell the wildflowers she's gathered and hinting at the lonely years. He was good before--strong, stoic, straight-shooting--but now? Well, ladies, it's like what they say about really good chicken salad. The secret is in letting it sit.

Muir has turned into a man of many and varied parts (All of them hot. #hotScot). The House Tour of Love is enough to tell her that. He lives in a home with a young Dutch orphan he's taken in out of the goodness of his heart, the place is neat as a pin and, to cap it all off, his house is stuffed with books. Does a man like that even need a woman? To answer that impertinent question, he marches her into the empty master bedroom (and adjacent nursery) that he has not dared occupy alone, and says, "A man doesn't just want a wife to bake girdle scones and oatcakes and sweep his floors, Roberta."

Oh my gosh, you guys.
He said that in the bedroom.
The sexual tension is so thick you could spread it on toast, so what is the hold up? Here darlings, is where we get the Misunderstanding. When Muir is called away, Roberta does a spot of snooping (as one does) and finds a broken picture frame with a photograph of Marie in it, stuffed into a drawer. Now the empty bedroom feels less like A Harbinger of Rather Nice Conjugal Relations To Come and more like A Shrine to Saint Marie.

Things eddy on for a while as Roberta and Muir get to know one another. George kisses her and Muir sees. Marie arrives and Roberta is a wee bit catty which I love, actually. (Heroines are often so 'good' and Roberta is just human, here.) Roberta overhears a not-at-all incriminating conversation between Old Robert and Muir that leads her to think he's after Heatherleigh so she's upset and hurt.

And then she sees him completely naked.

Essie Snelson Summers!
Young lady, you march in here this minute!

And she makes a pretty thorough job of it. He's not just swimming but diving too--over and over again. And, unless the sun was super-sized and right at his back, and she was a fair distance away... You can see that I've been manfully trying to work out the math. It is clear that she did not see then pivot.

Now I know what you're thinking. It's a mighty convenient time for a Dawning Realization. And it does happen--but not because of his drawer-less-ness. That whole thing is treated as a hilarious joke (really, hardly anything about it that feels fraught with longing for a trip to Brighton) and also touches on her career as an artist. You know. Form. Fluidity. That sort of thing.

Roberta was inspired. Very.
But then he kisses her (with pants!) and, Holy Cats, the realization that he is the man she has been waiting for is like an avalanche that knocks her over and stuffs itself into her gloves and ears and nose. There is no rescue beacon strong enough to dig her out of this one. She is sure he feels the same way, somehow, so it is all the more heartbreaking when he says the wrong thing afterward. (And thank goodness or else we only get a 66 page book). Let's see if we can forgive him, shall we?

"Well, if George can kiss you, so can I!"

It's not Peak Cad, certainly, but it's going to take a fair amount of Best Practises to get him out of that hole. Unfortunately, Roberta is not in a forgiving mood. She's decided he must only be interested in the estate (and will dump his true love, Marie, to get it) and hatches a plot (oh dear, these never turn out well) to lead Muir on, secure a proposal and then tell him the exact GPS location wherein he may put that proposal. Hint: It's very dark there.

So we've got an Active Wooing situation and he asks her out on a Date--a complicated process for a farmer in the back of beyond with power failures and a stoat attack to contend with--and she comes over to help out with dinner and do more snooping (because if you can't Facebook stalk someone, the least you can do is rifle through their drawers). In Muir's bedside table she finds a miniature painting of herself that her father did years ago for Grandy (ugh).

She decides that instead of Muir having it because he wants it, he has it because Grandy Old Robert is trying to further their romance. He wants Muir to inherit Heatherleigh, see?

No. I don't see. This is Roberta's big problem. Forgive me for a little science digression: Occam's Razor suggests that "among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected". Roberta doesn't have crappy conclusions to all the things she gets wrong. But it's always the second most likely hypothesis. I shall call this: Roberta's Razor.
Muir is a fantastically good date, makes excellent conversation and even plays the piano. But Roberta is surprised that her grandfather's shepherd should wash up so well.
"Completing your education?" asked Roberta. "I rather like to think of people doing that."
Muir brushed that aside. "I had to achieve some polish," he said, "to fit into the world you live in at Heatherleigh."

It could come off as creepy but it doesn't, mostly because Muir, unlike, say, Jay Gatsby in his pursuit of Daisy, actually bothers to read the books in his library. I should go ahead and tell you now that he thought of her enough these long (lonely, let me remind you) years that he was on the point of running off to find her. He had, as Old Robert tells her in the end, "...a fancy to see what sort of a woman you had grown into."

Again, Roberta's Razor makes a pass and she only sees that he wanted polish so that he could become a New Zealand land baron. But can you see what the stakes are for him? Why he didn't just cancel on the Date when everything went so wrong? Why he was willing to drive 80 miles one way just to see a play? Why he made that light-hearted remark after their kiss? It all matters so much to him and he is terrified that it's all going to go pear-shaped.

The next parts of the book are a long march through The Awesomeness of Muir Buchanan. He grows unprofitable government wheat because of humanitarian reasons, you guys. He stops George from running a 'sly-grog' because Old Robert lost his son in a drunken brawl. He even dances with wallflowers and finds them partners.

I hate when Muir is on the upswing because that only means that Roberta is about to take a long slide down--like, that slide right before the end of Chutes and Ladders that takes you almost back to the beginning. He proposes. Don't you want to end that sentence right there and not find out that Roberta buys him a one-way ticket to Disillusionment City?

The train to Disillusionment City was super fast.
He hands her the snapshot of her and George he's had tucked in his copy of Poetical Robert for 13 years and takes his medicine. He won't pester her anymore.

Let's tot up the list of things he's been hanging onto for 13 years:

  • A paua shell she picked up off the beach when she was 12 and which he had made into a necklace for her.
  • Her father's painted miniature that he takes with him on trips.
  • That snapshot.
  • And a wounded puppy.
What? Yes. A puppy too. The old dog she's had following her around is the puppy that got mangled by the haymaker long ago. Old Robert thought it should be put down and Little Roberta had cried so, of course, Muir nursed it back to health. 

I'm going to skip the fire and Marie's elopement with a man of the cloth (#hotScotReverend) and rush to the second proposal which happens in a hospital ward, within earshot of everybody. She has an actual injury--not a pretend injury which is, in the world of Romance Literature, just a prelude to romantic snuggling and foot groping--that she got in a landslide. It sounds wonderfully gruesome and though there WAS, in fact, a shepherd's hut nearby and a fire to dry out in front of and some charitable clothes shedding, that was secondary to the misery of wondering if she'll ever walk on it again. (It reminds me of Chinatown where Jack Nicholson has a slashed nose that lasts more than two scenes.) 

This time she accepts and it's up to Old Robert to tell her that all her Roberta's Razor notions were wrong.

Rating: In the Land of Essie Summers, I'll rate things in Landslips. This deserves 8 Landslips out of 10. I loved this so much and am really astonished her novel-writing career was so fully realized right out of the gate.

The negatives are that Old Robert should have had nothing (or very little) to do with the explanations at the end and Essie does get a little tangential from time to time. The pluses are riduculously awesome:

  • My imagination has a lot of fodder to play around in when I imagine Muir having that conversation with Old Robert wherein he basically has to confess that he's never found a woman he liked better than the one he thinks his granddaughter will have turned into. 
  • I loved the multi-generational family and supporting characters.
  • I liked that Saint Marie really was a bit of a saint. She was slated to be a serious Veronica but, instead, Essie offers us this sweet little romance (that happens off-stage) about becoming a better person because you love someone...and isn't that what Roberta and Muir do, themselves?
Location: Oamaru

Misunderstanding: She thinks he's a fortune hunter and in love with another woman.

**Edit: I had thought to just rate these all in landslips but repented of that. The Essie Summers rating system is posted in the tab at the top of the page and, under that criteria, Healtherleigh deserves a "Digging out the sheep"!


  1. I would read this when I was away from home, and away from my book. But this is a wonderful wonderful start to the land of Essie Summers. I particularly love the landslip rating. I would give this one less land slipped, mostly because I've read them all and this wasn't one of my favorites. But now, I'm going to go back and read it again, and it will probably jump up a boulder or two.
    Thank you, thank you for starting these reviews.

    1. Yes, I wondered if it would hold up as well. That's the hard part of rating the first one. I mean, I've read them all--or almost all--but not for a while and I just enjoyed this so much more than I should have. I might have been carried away.

  2. Love, love, love the review! Had to LOL several times! 🏊‍♂️ 🎨 hint, hint
    Thank you for starting this downunderish new project!

  3. I can't believe that you skipped the fire! Also, I think it's hilarious that she just reads his papers and pokes around in his drawers and cupboards every time she's in his house.

    1. Yes, she has no scruples about it and never gets caught! That's the sort of snooping I adore. I had to skip the fire. By the time I got to that part, my temperature had spiked and I just had to be done. It was fantastic though.

  4. When this novel came out, Bill and Essie were in active ministry at Rakaia Parish and their daughter Elizabeth was I think 12...and Elizabeth caught a LOT of crap from schoolmates over that nude scene. Also, at the time one did not mention anything that even vaguely had to do with reproduction, whether human or animal, if ladies were present. But once Essie got it into her head that she wanted to set a novel on a sheep station...well, you know how she liked to Get Things Right. So she basically went around putting every farmer in the parish into a state of near-terminal embarrassment at having the MINISTER'S WIFE, notebook and pencil in hand, harangue them about every last explicit detail of everything having to do with sheep farming, and I do mean EVERYTHING. I so very, very, very much wish I could have overheard a few of those conversations.

    1. Poor Elizabeth (I say, wiping tears of laughter from my eyes.) I recall a bit in...I want to say it was Revolt and Virginia where the heroine (an author) talks aobut someone describing her books as "raw" and how they didn't think they were appropriate for the daughter of the manse to write. The heroine gets very eye-rolly about it and I knew then and there that Essie was my kind of lady. That's the heart of why I love her books--because so much of herself is in them and I know I would have loved that woman. Wholesome down to her bones but not prissy about it. Honestly, each time you leave a comment I am delighted anew.

    2. Spot-on about the Revolt quote; I once wrote a preface to New Zealand Inheritance purely for my own amusement with only myself for an intended audience, and quoted exactly that passage. You are absolutely right that it was Revolt in Virginia; Virginia, prospective fiancee to a minister, was talking to her prospective mother-in-law, who did not think the most recent short story had been Quite Ministerially Wifely -- and Virginia's instant response is a laughing, "You should see the ones I publish under pseudonyms!" Then she turns serious and blasts her about how her writing expresses herself and nobody else and her mother-in-law-never-to-be can buzz off. It strikes me exactly the way it strikes you, namely, that Virginia is speaking on behalf of Essie to all her prudish critics.

      I think almost everyone who really loves her books, loves them because they would have loved Essie. (And by all accounts Bill was as wonderful a person as Essie was.) If Essie were still around and knew you were writing, it's practically a given that she would be mentoring you -- as she did an entire generation of New Zealand romance writers. If you get a chance to pick up a book called The Passionate Pen, by Rachel McAlpine, you'd probably find it worth the money. It's a serious of fifteen interviews with New Zealand romance writers about their experiences and careers. The interview with Mary Moore includes the following bit:

      One day Essie Summers rang me up and said, 'Oh, you wouldn't know me, Essie Summers.' Wouldn't I know her! She was a fantastic writer, loved throughout New Zealand. She was going through Reefton and just thought she'd give me a ring.

      She did everything as a writer should. She had her lists of characters, always methodical and neat as an apple in all she did. Tremendous goodness, tremendous hospitality. If I sagged at the knees and said things were too tough, she'd write me, 'Do you need a plot?' Away would come a list of plots. 'Do you need a setting?' She'd send me articles on Hanmer Springs or Kaikoura.

      A truly, truly remarkable woman, and her personality came through so clearly in her books. When we started republishing the novels early this year, I wrote the afterword for Sweet Are the Ways and focused on how much of Essie there was in Elspeth. Elizabeth's first comment was something like, "Are you sure you and mum didn't know each other in a previous life?" And my immediate thought was, "Nothing special about me; ANYBODY could know your mum as well as I do -- you just have to read her books, and there she is."

    3. Bringing up Elspeth reminded me that one of my favorite things as a writer is to put easter eggs from my fandoms into my books. Though my first three books are magical Regency (not at all the same genre as Essie's books), the heroine in book 2 is Meg Summers. The awesome old lady in book 3? Elspeth. You are so right about knowing Essie. I have always felt like I do (which was probably really awkward for her if people really did show up at her house in NZ--random strangers claiming acquaintance). That anecdote with Mary Moore is so satisfying. Of course she had buckets of energy to expend on other writers. Of course she was generously ladling it out.

    4. So now you don't have to tell me your professional name because that was enough information for me to track down the three books I can -- and just did -- snag for my Kindle. As the only book I've ever read that could even remotely be called "Magical Regency romance" was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I am looking forward to expanding my literary horizons here.

      (grinning) Actually, I can sorta see you writing something along the lines of P&P&Z, if you write your fiction in the same mood as that in which you write your blog posts...

    5. Oh, one other thing: I presume you know that email sent to comes back as undeliverable? (No biggie, I was just sending you a link I thought you would be interested in.)

    6. My historicals have a different tone (still lovely but less deliberate comedy). I also finished a contemporary sweet romance for Kindle Vella and found it hilarious what having access to more recent allusions like vulcanized rubber and hard candy can do for my sense of humor. ;) My romance-writing education was built on the backs of Essie Summers, Betty Neels, Mary Stewart and Jane Austen and I am SO lucky I lit on them. Each wrote robust stories of how a woman could be strong in a variety of ways or become so. Love them. (And that dratted email. I totally forgot about it and no wonder it's now defunct. I'll sort it out but you can always reach me on Facebook or Instagram (@keiradominguezwrites) in the mean time.)

    7. Let me know when there's a good e-mail link.

      Her Caprice was really very, very impressive. Not my kind of book, really, yet I still enjoyed it. Left a review that was meant to let people know whether it was a good book for them to buy depending on taste (that one review where the person couldn't get past how "unrealistic" the magic was had me laughing hysterically), but the last paragraph is really for you.

      I don't do insincere praise, by the way; so anything in the review I said, I absolutely meant. You can write like nobody's business.