Romance on the high seas
AS a historical romance or a Georgian-era smuggling thriller, On Starlit Seas is the kind of page-turner it’s pleasant to curl up with, a steaming mug of hot chocolate at the ready. Look a little deeper and this novel reveals itself to be a tenacious exploration into how people are kept in their place, and often compelled to rise above it, by the rigid codes of class.
Its heroine is the real-life 19th-century writer Maria Graham, a woman well ahead of her time. “A keen observer of life abroad”, with a serious, analytical mind and an aptitude for science, her books were published by John Murray, whose roster included Jane Austen, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. We join her after the death of her husband in Brazil, where civil war has broken out and the only way to get to London and submit her latest manuscripts is to book passage with the roguish but essentially decent (and entirely fictional) trader Captain John Henderson and his cargo of cacao.
As a child in London, Henderson anticipated becoming a respectable gentleman but, when he moved to South America to be with his father, found that his old man was not the prosperous colonial businessman his letters home claimed. John grew up instead to become the skipper of an antiquated trading barque with a sideline in smuggling. Returning to London is almost like reclaiming a birthright: the city represents everything he wanted to be.
The class that Captain Henderson aspires to join, however, is stifling Maria. All that we find admirable about her – her independence, her status as a writer, her willingness to fight her way through jungles – is abhorrent to her family, who want to bring the wayward woman to heel and turn her into a proper society lady.
Henderson awakens a passion in Maria that she never felt for her late husband. But she’s well aware that marrying someone so unsuitable would ruin everything she’s achieved.
As it happens, there are far greater dangers brewing. Henderson has allowed himself to be recruited into a cacao-smuggling operation run by a sinister trio of London “gentlemen”. Men have already died, and the captain will need all his wits and experience to negotiate his way through this one. It’s an exciting enough plot, but the story is elevated by the way Sheridan forefronts her characters’ class-consciousness.
The London investors use their social status as a weapon against their lowlier employees. Richard Fry, scion of the Fry’s Chocolate dynasty, seeks to prove he’s more than a pampered rich kid by dressing down and taking walks on the wild side. Even the venerable John Murray gets a dressing-down when he dares to challenge the Establishment.
Sheridan binds together social comment, romance on the high seas, pursuit by excisemen, knife-wielding toerags in the stench of 19th-century London and the consumption of so much hot chocolate that the pages seem impregnated with its heady aroma.
It all makes On Starlit Seas a pleasure to consume, and not even a guilty one.
Sara Sheridan binds together social comment, romance on the high seas, and the stench of 19th-century London