The Widow of Larkspur Inn (The Gresham Chronicles #1)
By: Lawana Blackwell
Publisher: Bethany House
Julia Hollis enjoyed a life of genteel privilege as a respected doctor’s wife and mother of three until her husband’s sudden death shatters her life and illusions. His debts strip away his family’s very way of life, leaving Julia and her children with no other provision than The Larkspur, a dilapidated, one-time coaching in located in the country village of Gresham. Left with no other recourse than to reinvent herself, Julia pins her family’s hopes of survival on the inn, and with the aid of Fiona, a servant and friend who fled from Ireland years earlier, she determines to reopen the Larkspur as a lodging house. Life in Gresham is a far cry from the cosmopolitan lifestyle Julia and her little family once enjoyed, but with no other choice, Julia determines to lead the household into a brighter future as the Larkspur’s mistress. Country superstitions and the eccentricities of lodgers challenge each individual who comes to call the Larkspur home, and for the first time without the guidance of a man as head of household, Julia and Fiona are forced to rely on their faith and latent talents like never before, blossoming into capable businesswomen. But the faith to love again may be their greatest challenge yet…
Lawana Blackwell has long been a favorite novelist, one I credit with contributing to the expansion of Christian fiction in the late 90s beyond the long-established norm of prairie romances. The Gresham Chronicles is a series I revisited often following its initial publication, but in recent years the idea of re-reading even cherished favorites has seemed like too daunting a prospect, too time consuming when one considers the ever growing list of newly released novels to read. There is also the fear that upon revisiting a book that has defined and shaped one’s reading identity even in some small way may result in disappointment – with growth and changing taste, will a once-loved classic hold up years later?
If nothing else, revisiting The Widow of Larkspur Inn for the first time in at least ten years has cemented my resolve to make time to reacquaint myself with old favorites, for I was most happy to discover that Blackwell’s writing not only holds up but still shines. Her ability to transport the reader into her setting is one of the best in the business, her world-building saturated with the sights, sounds, and feel of Victorian England to the smallest detail.
Since this book first released, Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction has enjoyed a renewal in popularity and awareness, thanks in large part to the success of lavish costume dramas like Cranford and North and South. Those who enjoy Gaskell’s stories in print and film will find much to love in the pages of Blackwell’s writing, as like her predecessor she is most at home penning stories of community and change, varied social vignettes skillfully strung together and painted against a social backdrop ripe for the advances of the Victorian era.
From her principle players to supporting roles, Blackwell is positively fastidious in crafting nuanced, colorful characters that populate each social strata of Gresham. Far from just Julia’s story, this is a fully-realized tale of her world, from her children’s growing pains to her deepening friendship with Fiona to the quirky, lace-making neighbors the Worthy sisters, an argument could be made that Blackwell’s thorough characterizations are Dickensian in scope and detail.
I love Julia’s character arc. She is a woman wholly of her time, but through her faith and experiences grows into a woman more capable and empowered than her previously occupied social role ever allowed her to dream possible. Romance plays a role, yes, but only insomuch as it supplements Julia’s newfound maturity and confidence. Here Blackwell gives readers the story of a woman first and foremost coming into her own, where faith and personal growth are the endgame and romance is a delicious bonus.
This novel contains one of my favorite sub-plots by far in all my years of reading inspirational fiction, that of the slow-burning relationship between Fiona and lodger Ambrose Clay, the melancholic actor who comes to Gresham to retreat from life only to find himself inextricably drawn into the lives of his fellow residents. Ambrose is a brooding, Byronic hero – an Edward Rochester type with an extra measure of self-loathing and a dash of redemptive compassion and humor. Their greatest obstacle to happiness isn’t Ambrose’s moods but rather Fiona’s secret shrouded past, and their journey to happiness is an angst-ridden romance lover’s dream.
Faith saturates these pages but not overly so, as Blackwell weaves faith into the very fabric of her characters’ lives, as much as part of them as breathing. Julia’s growth is inextricably entwined with her exploration of faith, as she claims both her belief in God and her belief in herself for herself, not to be taken for granted or assumed as an extension of her social role. And Vicar Phelps’s efforts to lead Ambrose to Christ remains one of my favorite “conversion” experiences in inspirational fiction, for rather than preaching, he befriends and engages, living the tenets of his faith in such a way that Ambrose experiences that fruit without the pressure of expectation. And upon this reading, I was once again struck by Blackwell’s sensitivity in handling the issue of depression, faith, and the hope of healing. Belief is not a quick fix or “magic” cure, and while healing and restoration is never to be discounted or dismissed, with Ambrose, Blackwell beautifully illustrates the blessing of faith in facing life’s trials.
The Widow of Larkspur Inn is a modern inspirational classic, one I’m thrilled to have finally revisited after years of fond memory. Blackwell’s fiction is a warm, enveloping, beautifully realized world. She excels at exploring the minutiae of Victorian life with warmth and humor, sketching nostalgic vignettes that bring Victorian England to life on the page. Revisiting Gresham has reminded me anew that Blackwell’s deftly drawn characters, deliciously slow-burning romance, and refreshingly honest spirituality – particularly for the time period – sets a high standard today. I look forward to revisiting Gresham again soon – for stories like this never lose their shine.
About the book:
Julia Hollis's opulent life in Victorian London crashes to pieces when her husband passes away. Worse, she is told by his bankers that he gambled away their fortune. Now the family's hope rests on The Larkspur, an old abandoned coaching inn in the quaint village of Gresham.
Driven by dread and her desire to provide for her children, Julia decides to turn the dilapidated inn into a lodging house. But can she -- who was accustomed to servants attending to every need -- do what needs to be done and cope when boarders begin arriving? And then an eligible new vicar moves into town...