Review: High Garth by Mira Stables (1977)

Posted December 7, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, because so many people whose opinions I respect love it and recommended it to me. Well, now I’ve read it and… meh. If you like lyrical descriptions of a rather idealised life on a remote Yorkshire farm, this is definitely the book for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a compelling romance with credible obstacles to overcome and actual tension between the couple, best look elsewhere.

Here’s the premise: Patrick Delvercourt is struggling to make a go of his small farm in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, after he inherited a house but no money. With the house let to tenants, he has to make a go of the farm, with the help of a small number of loyal workers. But his housekeeper is becoming too frail for the work, and there’s his young brother to be watched over and given some education. His attempts to advertise for a housekeeper-cum-governess have fallen apart when the women discover just how isolated and primitive the farm is. But Patrick has the good fortune to stumble across Ann Beverley, clearly a lady, but reduced to governessing and newly dismissed from her post. Cautiously, the two agree to give it a try.

The early part of the book is a paean to the beauties of Yorkshire, and a detailed description of just how farming people lived in whatever year this is set (I’m not sure whether it’s Regency or Victorian, to be honest). It’s interesting, but frankly it doesn’t move the plot along very much. I’m all in favour of a bit of description, but I do like something to actually happen as well. But this part of the book is all about describing just how beautiful Yorkshire is (yes, we got that) and establishing the relationships. There’s nothing to dislike about it, but it didn’t set me on fire, either.

The middle part picks up a bit with the reveal that the tenant of the house he inherited is none other than Patrick’s lost love, the woman he nearly married before losing his house and fortune. She promptly married someone else, and rented Patrick’s house (which was why she wanted to marry him in the first place). So now she’s his nearest neighbour and a perpetual reminder of what he’s lost. She’s also a cow of the first degree, so he’s better off without her, frankly, which he’s surely smart enough to see. She’s typifies one of the major problems with the book, in fact, which is that all the characters are either too good to be true or out and out villains. It’s true that Patrick and Ann are not without flaws, but they are sneakily positive flaws like pride and being over-sensitive about matters of rank and fortune.

And here in a nutshell is the biggest problem I found – that there is no real obstacle to the romance at all, apart from the aforesaid pride and a perceived discrepancy of rank. There’s some slight tension between them at times, but it’s largely because of misunderstandings (yes, that old chestnut), and therefore not very convincing. And there’s a major fail in all this, in that both hero and heroine are keeping big secrets from each other, and one of them, at least, would remove every vestige of an obstacle at a stroke, if it were revealed. But that would spoil the story, so it isn’t revealed until the very end. I can’t tell you how annoyed I was by it.** (Spoiler below, if you want it.)

I have one other quibble. Ann left home to be a governess largely because her vastly rich stepfather was so horrible to her. But then at the end of the book he turns up, is as nice as pie to everyone, essentially engineers the marriage and gives Ann a tidy dowry as well! Believable? Not in the slightest.

Despite all this, I have to confess that there was a lot that I enjoyed about the book. Ann and Patrick were both lovely, sympathetic characters, pride and secrets notwithstanding, and little Philip was fun. There were even moments when the lyrical descriptions quite won me over. Still, the lack of much plot, the implausibility of the stepfather’s change of heart and that huge secret kept me from unreserved enjoyment. With any other writer, I might give this three stars, but I’m a huge fan of Mira Stables in general and the quality of the writing gets it four stars.