The previous four volumes of Anand's highly literate and absorbing "Bridges Over Time" series traced the Whitmead family of Surrey, England, from before the Magna Carta to the early 1700s. The fifth, The Cherished Wives, picks up the Whitmeads in the late 1700s, as George Whitmead, a wealthy merchant with the East India Company, returns from India to England to choose a suitable bride.
George may be young but he has decided ideas about wifely deportment and his interval at home stretches as one young woman after another proves too talkative, too opinionated, too forward, too independent. Then his eye falls on Lucy-Anne, 17, shy, quiet, inexperienced and protected.
Even before the wedding Lucy-Anne understands that the sun shines on George exclusively and that her own orbit will be of his choosing. But at her wedding her great aunt Henrietta bestows an unusual blessing: "I wish you well, my dear, and I wish you power and freedom too; more of them than I have ever had."
Her words ring in Lucy-Anne's mind over the years, most often ironically, for power and freedom were not part of her marriage bargain. Lucy-Anne traded away any chance at either in return for the security she gains from being George's wife and mistress of his Surrey Estate.
But it's a hard bargain. George, disappointed in an heir, returns disgruntled to his beloved India, leaving his wife in the care of his mother, both cocooned in respectable seclusion on his estate. But old Mrs. Whitmead soon dies in a most protracted and hideous manner and Lucy-Anne is left to cope on her own. A particularly blistering and insensitive letter from George destroys the last of her regard but Lucy-Anne struggles to run the estate and live according to his proscriptions while carving out a niche for herself.
Since anything she does is likely to annoy George, deception becomes a way of life and repressed emotions smolder, needing only the slightest spark to shatter her artificial and lonely life. That spark is, of course, supplied. But this is no passionate bodice-ripper, no tale of triumph for the headstrong heroine. Quite the opposite. Passion turns to ashes when doused with the cold water of reality and every small gesture of assertiveness on Lucy-Anne's part is beaten back tenfold.
Anand's compassionate but unsentimental eye creates a vivid world in which the characters are wholly of their time. Her prose is colorful and evocative, her characters, especially the women, completely human, and the richness of historical detail forms the textural background inseparable from the story itself. Those who have not read Anand before will find themselves turning with pleasure to her earlier works.