By Emma Boone
Sarah E. Ladd’s “The Letter from Briarton Park” immediately signals Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but with a twist. There’s the stern caregiver on her deathbed, the lost, yet hopeful orphan with the potential love interest, and, above all, the isolating, mysterious setting. Admittedly, Mrs. Jane Denton isn’t as cruel as Mrs. Reed is, nor is the Denton School for Young Ladies absolute hell on earth, but the regency inspiration remains strong.
More specifically, Cassandra grows from student to teacher, just as Jane Eyre becomes a governess. Warrington’s condescending mother-in-law, Mrs. Margaret Towler, is reminiscent of one very scary crone: Pride and Prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mrs. Towler tames a ‘wayward silver curl’ and points with a ‘long, bony finger.’ Similarly, Lady Catherine de Bourgh sports curly gray hair and spindly fingers. Both ladies are elderly busybodies, then, but elegant and refined nonetheless!
The loving but tense relationship shared between James Warrington and his half-sister, Rachel, is like that of another quarrelsome duo: Mr. Darcy and the beautiful Georgiana!
Despite these many parallels, Ladd’s novel is anything but boring. Quite the contrary, in fact! For one, Ladd writes with skillful balance. She intersperses picturesque descriptions of architecture and nature among serious plights. She moves, for example, from quaint and “modest shops with slate roofs” to the vicar’s uncertain but vital assistance. She smoothly transitions from crisp leaves swirling ’round the ankles to Cassandra’s deep-rooted fear of graveyards and the death of her parents. The descriptions are at once telling but light, troublesome but never too dark, and this oscillation keeps tedium at bay.
Cassandra herself is a nuanced character. In the prologue, Cassandra finds out that Mrs. Denton has been keeping secrets and is understandably frustrated. Relatable? Check. Cassandra, however, still tries to make Mrs. Denton’s last moments comfortable. Kind? Most certainly. Upon her arrival to Briarton Park, she’s nostalgic for home (relatable again!), but she only lets herself dwell in the past for a snippet. Before long, she snaps her spine back into place and sniffs, albeit delicately, at homesickness. Resolute? Check. Brave? Check. Strong? Checkmate!
There’s a famous quote from Walt Disney that reads “There is no magic in magic, it’s all in the details.” Ladd’s novel is no different, with much of the magic coming from her details. Even the names used have rich historical resonance as James is a British monarchy name which has reigned for years. Unlike in Bridgerton, where being 21 is considered a spinster, Ladd’s work downplays the ageism; 24 is the new 21! Fans of Northanger Abbey and gothic architecture will positively devour this read
The Letter from Briarton Park by Sarah E. Ladd
Published by Thomas Nelson, March 1, 2022